Kamchay project highlights risks and rewards of damming our rivers
Employees of Sinohydro Corp. cross a bridge over the Kamchay River built by the Chinese firm to service a hydropower project it is developing on the river in Kampot province.
KAMPOT - Chinese engineer Hu Nan gazes through a freshly hewn gap in the hillside toward the distant Kamchay River. Swollen by heavy rains, the river gushes over the rocks below while fully loaded earthmoving trucks rumble past, slowly carving a 110-meter-high auditorium out of the densely forested hills of Bokor National Park.
A recent engineering graduate from Beijing, Hu says he is proud to be involved in the construction of the $280-million Kamchay dam, Cambodia's largest hydropower project to date.
"This will be the Three Gorges Dam of Cambodia," he yells over the noise of a nearby generator.
The massive dam development in Kampot province broke ground last September and is the government's most recent effort to boost Cambodia's electricity output by harnessing one of the Kingdom's most abundant natural resources: its rivers.
With just 20 percent of Cambodian households enjoying reliable access to electricity, the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME) envisions large-scale hydroelectric projects as a solution to the country's chronic power shortages.
In its most recent Power Development Plan, covering the years 1999 to 2016, the ministry earmarked 14 potential sites for development by 2018.
Construction has started at two - including Kamchay - with another six now undergoing feasibility studies.
Kampot Governor Thach Khon says dams are an important way of providing cheaper electricity, which he says is crucial to Cambodia's economic and social development.
"Electricity is necessary for the development of business and industry. It means that we will be able to implement our policies for poverty reduction. If there is no electricity we cannot develop the country," he said.
Shu Jiang, deputy managing director of Sinohydro Corporation, the Chinese state firm that is constructing the dam, agrees that the completed project will be a boon for the local economy.
"The power station will provide cheap power for Cambodia ... and after the construction, I think many tourists will go there to play in the reservoir," he told the Post at the company's Phnom Penh office.
But as with the controversial Three Gorges project on China's Yangtze River - another Sinohydro project - local and international NGOs have expressed concern that large-scale dam developments could have negative impacts on the environment and local communities that far outweigh their benefits as a source of cheap power.
Sam Chanthy, environment project officer at the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said the Kamchay dam highlights what he sees as the unrestrained nature of Cambodia's hydropower development.
"The government expects this dam to generate more electricity. They think it will industrialize Kampot, bring in more investment, more factories," he said.
"But we can also see some of the downsides. About 2,000 hectares of protected forest will need to be cleared."
A January 2008 report prepared by the US-based watchdog International Rivers and the River Coalition in Cambodia (RCC) concludes that the Kamchay dam project "raises important questions regarding both [Sinohydro] and the Cambodian government's commitment to transparency, accountability, public participation, and the incorporation of adequate environmental and social safeguards."
Chanthy said that the initial Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by Sinohydro prior to construction lacked any significant public participation, as required by the 1996 Law on Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Management.
"According to the law, [the project] is not legal at all," Chanthy said.
Central to environmental groups' fears is the risk that the Kamchay dam could create problems similar to those experienced downstream of the Yali Falls Dam, built in Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1996.
The RCC said in a report last year that toxic blue-green algae generated by the "nutrient-rich bottom water from the Yali reservoir" was flowing into Cambodia, creating a potential public health risk.
"People are already getting hurt by the [Kamchay] dam in terms of water quality," Chanthy said.
Vendors who work at Teuk Chhu resort, a popular riverside attraction downstream from the Kamchay dam, say they are worried pollution from the dam could cause visitor numbers to drop.
Muo Sim, 50, who sells food and drinks along the river's bank, said she supported the project but was concerned it would affect the livelihoods of the 500 or so vendors at Teuk Chhu.
"We support hydropower dams because we hope it means we will get cheaper electricity. But if there is poor management, it might make the water dirty and that could be the end of the famous resort here," she said
Sinohydro representatives meanwhile have rejected accusations that the company ignored the environmental impacts of the project, arguing that the Kamchay dam is being built to the same standards as the company's other dams in China.
"During the construction period, some problems can't be avoided," said Li Tao, a Chinese engineer at the dam site. "But we have constructed many dams in China, and we will obey the Chinese laws regarding the environment."
Li said the company would do everything it could to prevent a decline in water quality over the long term.
"After we finish the dam, we will cut all the trees and clear all the surrounding areas. So don't worry about the water quality," he said.
Ith Praing, secretary of state at the MIME, also defended Sinohydro's environmental assessments, saying that "the process has been normal" and that the impacts of all large hydropower projects are investigated before construction is allowed to start.
Chanthy of the NGO Forum emphasized that pursuing hydropower did not mean making a choice between development and conservation.
"We're not against the dams," he said. "We are only pushing the government to abide by its own laws."