Sambor Dam

From the flooded forests of the Tonle Sap Lake to the banks of the mighty Mekong River, fishing has always been central to the peoples’ way of life in Cambodia. Yet, a threat now looms large to these rich fisheries and the communities that depend on them. In October 2006, the Cambodian government gave approval to the China Southern Power Grid Company to prepare a feasibility study for the massive 3,300 MW Sambor Dam, to be located on the Mekong River’s mainstream at Sambor town, Kratie province. However following pressure from Cambodian and international NGOs, in late 2011 China Southern Power Grid withdrew from the project, stating that they were ‘a responsible company’.

In November 2010, the Cambodian government announced that China Guodian Corporation would carry out feasibility studies for the project's 465 MW and 2,600 MW options. Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) was contracted by Cambodia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy in 2013 to study redesign of the Sambor Dam, to address, in particular, concerns around sedimentation. NHI is now undertaking studies for alternative designs options for the Sambor Dam. 

Media reports in February 2017 cited a letter from the Cambodian Council of Ministers dated 31 October 2016, linking Cambodia’s The Royal Group to three proposed dams in Cambodia – the Stung Treng, Sambor and Lower Sekong Dams. In its letter, the Council of Ministers “agrees in principle” to the Ministry of Mines and Energy to enter into a memorandum of understanding with The Royal Group to “thoroughly conduct” pre-feasibility, feasibility and social and environmental impact studies of the three dams.

If built, the Sambor Dam would block major fish migrations between Southern Laos and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, destroy critical deep pool fish habitats, and interrupt the river’s hydrological, sediment and nutrient cycles, impacting the river’s wider ecology. Ultimately, the project would jeopardize the fisheries vital to Cambodia’s economy and food security.

A 1994 study estimated that over five thousand people would need to be resettled if the Sambor Dam was built. The Mekong River Commission's 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment estimated that around 20,000 would be evicted from their homes and land. The dam also threatens the habitat of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, whose territory includes the deep water pools close to the proposed dam site, and around which a thriving local tourism industry has grown. Even a smaller 465 MW project would result in severe impacts due to the project’s sensitive location.

The Sambor Dam would be a tragic and costly mistake for Cambodia. Cambodia’s fisheries safeguard the food security of millions of subsistence fishers and contribute over 15% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

There is an urgent need for the Cambodian Government to re-evaluate plans to build the Sambor Dam, with due consideration and weight given to the severe impacts on food security and livelihoods in Cambodia. National energy policies should prioritize the introduction of innovative renewable and decentralized electricity technologies that are now available and cost-competitive, over large-scale and destructive mega-dam projects.

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