Cambodia's largest hydropower project has been redesigned, leading to concerns from environmental groups, but a company official who confirmed the “design optimisation” over the weekend insisted that the Lower Sesan II dam will provide clean, safe energy and have few downstream impacts.
Ren Zhonghua, deputy director of the Hydro Power Lower Sesan II Company, also said critics of the dam needed to accept the reality of Cambodia’s electricity shortage and understand that the country would not develop without such projects.
The comments came after a delegation from the National Assembly’s environment commission led by Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Pol Ham visited the dam site over the weekend and met with affected communities living in the reservoir zone.
The controversial project, which will block the Sesan and Srepok rivers, is a joint venture between China’s Hydrolancang International and Cambodia’s Royal Group. It is expected to cost more than $800 million and go online in 2017. Experts have warned following extensive research into the projected impacts that it could lead to a food-security crisis in the Lower Mekong, affecting tens of thousands in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.
“We have authorised the design institute [an internal company body] to carry out design optimisation, rather than redesign. Compared with the original design, the total installed capacity remains unchanged after optimisation, with [a] safer dam, easier sediment flushing and flood discharging and more environmentally friendly,” Ren said.
He added that the environmental impact assessment had been approved by the government, and measures to protect the environment were being put in place. As the Lower Sesan II reservoir was relatively small, he said, “the dam has little impact downstream”.
The reservoir was calculated to cover about 36,000 hectares, according to the original design – about half the size of Singapore.
Since the Post first visited the dam site in February 2014, about a month after the joint venture was formed and the early stages of construction began, a huge wall of rock has been erected across the Sesan River and several square kilometres on the northern bank have been clear-felled and burned.
Kol Samol, Stung Treng governor, told the visiting lawmakers during a meeting at Provincial Hall on Friday that environmental groups such as the indigenous-led 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN) were part of a foreign plot to undermine Cambodia’s move towards energy independence.
“They want to make sure Cambodia will continue to live off the milk from [Vietnam and Thailand], like a baby needs milk from its mother,” Samol said, referring to power-purchase agreements signed in the 1990s that require Cambodia to buy electricity from its neighbours.
However, 3SPN coordinator Meach Mean was quick to deny the accusation that opposition was foreign-led, and called for the dam to be halted so that a new impact assessment could be carried out following the “design optimisation”.
“The government should postpone this project temporarily to conduct an [assessment] again and provide people compensation properly,” he said.
But Ren of the Lower Sesan II Company said an effective compensation plan had already been put in place.
“In order to make the villagers willing and happy to move out, we increased the resettlement budget and standards, namely, all households to be resettled will have a house of 80 square metres and farmlands of 5 hectares, and their fruit trees and other properties will also be compensated accordingly,” he said.
The environment commission intends to submit a report to parliament in the coming days, and afterwards call Environment Minister Say Sam Al to answer questions about the project.
“I can’t promise all of you I can stop the project temporarily,” environment commission chair Pol Ham told villagers in Srekor on Saturday, “but I can promise to bring your concerns to the National Assembly leader [Heng Samrin] to raise the issues with the prime minister.”
However, that promise did little to mollify villagers like Phar Vy, who attended the public meeting with Ham.
“The government officials and company representatives want to move us from our ancient village where our ancestors’ coffins lay. We cannot do that,” Vy said, espousing a popular sentiment. “I will not move my ancestors’ remains. I’ll stay here until I die.”