The Funan Techo Canal project will not have any serious environmental impacts and will bring only economic benefits, say analysts, despite some criticism from Vietnamese commentators and other critics abroad.

The project was announced last year following 26 months of feasibility studies, with the total cost expected to be close to $1.7 billion. It is estimated that the canal will take four years to complete.

The 180km waterway will link Prek Takeo of the Mekong River System to the Prek Ta Ek and Prek Ta Hing of the Bassac River System, and onto the Kingdom’s coastline in Kep province, crossing Kandal, Takeo and Kampot provinces.

The project will include three dams with sluices, 11 bridges and 208km of roads on either side of the waterway.

It canal will have a width of 100m at its head, narrowing to 80m at its mouth, with a depth of up to 5.4m. Two lanes will enable vessels to safely travel in opposite directions.

Around 1.6 million people live on either side of the planned canal.

With construction set to get underway later this year, there have been mounting concerns from Vietnamese experts, according to various media outlets in the neighbouring country.

VnExpress news reported on April 25 that experts fear that the construction of the canal will lead to water shortages for the Mekong Delta in Vietnam – the vegetable and rice basket of the neighbouring country – as well as increased levels of salinisation, due to an increase in the intrusion of seawater. They warned that this could affect the delta’s delicate ecosystem and the cultivation of crops.

The media outlet claimed that an April 23 conference was held in Vietnam to discuss the prospective canal’s impact. The discussions were led by local experts, it added.

While it is not unusual for Vietnamese commentators to express their concerns as they are downstream from the canal, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy also weighed in on the debate, suggesting that “serious reconsiderations” should be made regarding the project.

While sharing his perception of the canal’s environmental and social impacts, Rainsy also alleged that the canal was part of a “Chinese strategy”.

“Through its imperialist policy, China is seeking to secure access to the Gulf of Thailand through Cambodia and Laos, which are under its influence,” he said.

The self-exiled former opposition leader’s comments drew the ire of the majority of the members of the public who commented on his social media post, with many of them suggesting that he pays no attention to the best interests of the people.

Sok Touch, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, told the Post on April 25 that Rainsy habitually rejects all proposed developments in the Kingdom, without considering the benefits that they might bring to the country.

“He opposes everything, just to make his voice heard. This is not helping Cambodia – he appears to be working with foreigners to fight Cambodia. Did he do any research before making his comments? As we all know, where there is water, there is a path,” he said.

During a recent conference, Touch detailed how the canal will benefit the Kingdom, and explained that it will have little to no environmental impact.

He also noted that many hydroelectric dams have been inaugurated upstream from Vietnam, and asked whether Vietnam had ever questioned their construction.

“The impact of the Funan Techo Canal in Cambodia will be far less than the impact of just one of the upstream hydroelectric dams,” he said.

Touch explained that the Kingdom desperately needs the canal to avoid the current high costs of exporting its products through Vietnamese ports, as well as to reduce the transportation expenditure used on trucks and railways. He also noted that this will attract increased investment, accordingly.

He noted that it is a fact that salinisation is taking place in the Mekong Delta; noting that this was due to rising sea levels and lower water levels in the Mekong River, due to the number of dams which have been constructed upstream.

“Cambodia has the complete right to make its own decisions. We are a sovereign nation, and pursue a foreign policy based on building strong relations with all countries, based on mutual interests,” he said.

“When the Funan Techo Canal is complete, there will be no concerns for agriculture and crop cultivation along the canal because when we have water, we have everything,” he added.

Touch also allayed concerns about allegations that China would use the canal for military purposes, saying that the US, and China alike, have advanced technology and reconnaissance satellites that can track all military actions.

“If the US did not have these capabilities, how could they have targeted Iranian military leaders and how could they kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, when the Pakistanis themselves did not know he was in their country? They use satellites,” he said.

Ky Sereyvath, an economics researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, detailed many of the benefits of the canal. He explained that once operational, it will save the time goods spend in transit, while also reducing transport costs by up to $300 per container.

“The $300 reduction in costs will create a competitive advantage for Cambodia in international markets. This $300 will offset tariff barriers by Europe and the US,” he said.

“When Cambodia graduates from least-developed country status and becomes a low-middle-income country, the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme from the EU will be gone. By reducing costs, the canal will give us a competitive advantage over many other countries around the world,” he added.

Sereyvath also noted that the new facility will also make it easier to transport agricultural products from the provinces around the Tonle Sap Lake, reducing its transit time, and thus ensuring produce arrives to market as fresh as possible.

In addition, he envisioned that the canal will also serve as a reservoir, absorbing excess rainwater from the surrounding area during the rainy season, while also providing a source of fresh water to local people during the dry season.

He also suggested that the new infrastructure will lead to the creation of several new tourism ventures along its length, leading to increased employment opportunities.

“Another benefit of the canal is that it will provide optimism to our people. Once we have the canal, the people of Cambodia will realise that we have our own lifeline to the ocean. We should not look at the world through negative lenses, as this makes us see the world as far more dark than it is,” he added.