Cambodia: Hydropower Projects Lack Transparency, Could Displace Thousands

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PHNOM PENH, 27 August 2008 (IRIN) – Over the past year Phnom Penh has been considering several multi-million dollar dam projects around the lush Cardamom mountains and in other regions which threaten the country’s wildlife and, if implemented, could lead to the displacement of thousands of people.

“The prime minister has been pushing to build these dams very quickly,” said Seng Bunra, Cambodia’s country director for Conservation International, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to protect rainforests worldwide. “‘We need to make sure the feasibility studies are not rushed, and that care is taken in their construction.”

Bunra is especially concerned about a hydropower project on the Areng river, which he says could flood 20,000 hectares and displace some 1,500 primarily indigenous people.

The government has appeared to be unwilling to discuss the feasibility and environmental effects of the dam, he said.

“They [the government] had a research team studying the feasibility of the Areng project,” Bunra told IRIN, “but they just… kept it private, and then stopped studying it.”

Lack of public consultation

The World Commission on Dams (WCD), which sets international hydropower standards, says construction locations should be determined through a public consultation process.

A joint report by the NGOs International Rivers (IR) and the Rivers Coalition in Cambodia (RCC) also concluded that “hydropower development in Cambodia has proceeded in the absence of meaningful public consultation and an overall lack of transparency in the decision-making process.”

The report points out that Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cabinet have repeatedly made decisions regarding hydropower “behind closed doors”.

“We’re still not certain on the actual roles of the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Energy, and the National Electricity Authority,” said Ngy San, director of the RCC. “We’re concerned the government has not been releasing this information publicly, but the prime minister seems to be the main decision-maker regardless.”

Representatives from the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Energy were unavailable for comment.

China’s influence

To counteract spiralling electricity prices (some of the highest in the world, according to the World Bank), the government has embraced a development plan tapping into Cambodia’s vast river resources, with annual funding from Beijing (US$600 million) that almost equals the total of Western donor monetary aid.

In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wen Jiabao promised $1 billion in aid to Cambodia specifically for two hydropower projects, which have since materialised into the Stung Tatay and Stung Russey Chrum Krom dams.

Unlike aid from Western governments and NGOs, Chinese aid comes with no good governance or transparency strings attached. Premier Hun Sen praised China after an earlier $600 million aid package in 2006 for not “interfering with the internal affairs of Cambodia”.

However, whether Chinese companies will build dams that meet international environmental and social standards remains questionable, says the IR report

China’s largest hydropower firm, Sinohydro Corporation, will build the $280 million Kamchay dam inside a major national park, potentially flooding 2,000 hectares of protected forest, the report warns.

Sinohydro, owned by the Chinese government, was “downgraded” in 2006 after a government review – for its poor performance and for unspecified safety and environmental accidents – the IR report notes.

The details of many hydropower contracts – particularly Sinohydro’s – remain unknown. Cambodian lawmakers were asked to endorse the Sinohydro deal in 2006 without even having had access to the contract, according to the Cambodia Daily newspaper.

Environmental concerns

Another dam project under way on the Atay river threatens endangered Siamese crocodiles, which rely on the river’s seasonal levels for breeding.

Various species of turtle, fish, and birds are also at risk, according to Flora and Fauna International, an NGO that protects two wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamom Mountains.

Local diets depend particularly on fish, of which several species may face significantly reduced populations, according to Flora and Fauna.

The Atay dam will flood 3,560 hectares of protected forest in the Phnom Samkok Wildlife Sanctuary, and 5,193 hectares in total, according to a recent assessment by the Chinese Danang Corporation.

“In terms of conservation, it’s a lot of land,” Bunra told IRIN. “We cannot stop the development projects in these areas, but we can only ask the government and companies to reduce the environmental impact.”

Government’s stance

The official stance of the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Energy states that the Cardamom Mountains consist of over one million hectares, making 5,000 hectares worth sacrificing to lower energy costs in Cambodia.

Thorn Kimhong, who directs the Cardamom natural protected areas for the Ministry of Environment, said the Atay dam was necessary. “The dams must be built,” he told IRIN. “We need it for lower energy prices and for developing Cambodia.”

But for the thousands of residents who could be displaced, uncertainty lies ahead.

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