Chinese dams threaten Cambodia's forests, farmers

Ek Madra
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

CHAY ARENG RIVER, Cambodia (Reuters) - Along the Chay Areng valley in Cambodia's remote Cardamom mountains, children still scamper barefoot through one of mainland southeast Asia's last remaining tracts of virgin jungle.

If they take the same paths in a few years, they will probably have to be swimming.

Faced with a rapidly growing but power-starved economy, Prime Minister Hun Sen has decided the rivers flowing from one of the few elevated spots in a relentlessly flat country should become its battery pack.

With this in mind, in the last two years he has agreed to at least four Chinese-funded hydropower projects as part of a $3 billion scheme to boost output from a measly 300 MW today to 1,000 MW in a decade, enough to power a small city.

The indigenous communities who have lived off the forests in the Cardamoms since the dawn of time appear to be the ones who will be paying the biggest price.

"We have been living here without a dam for many generations. We don't want to see our ancestral lands stolen," said 78-year-old Sok Nuon, lighting a fire inside her wooden hut nestled in among the trees near the Chay Areng river.

"I do not want to move as it takes years for fruit trees to produce crops. By then, I'll be dead," she said.


Few people argue that Cambodia's 14 million people need more power.

After decades of war and upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields" of the 1970s, the economy has finally taken off, growing at nearly 10 percent a year.

But its antiquated, mainly diesel-fuelled power plants can meet only 75 percent of demand, meaning frequent blackouts and unit prices around twice those of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam -- both factors inhibiting faster expansion.

With the closer ties Hun Sen has cultivated with Beijing in the last five years, Chinese cash and dam-building expertise has become a logical solution to what is one of the inevitable pains of breakneck growth.

"Chinese investment in hydropower is so important for Cambodia's development," Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said in January after meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.

But critics maintain that much of the planning is taking place with scant regard for the long-term impact on the environment in a country where (80) percent of people still rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

"Poorly conceived and developed hydro-power projects could needlessly and irreparably damage Cambodia's river system with serious consequences," said Carl Middleton of the U.S.-based International Rivers Network.


The Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh denied Beijing was taking any short-cuts in dam construction in Cambodia -- part of a massive aid package designed to ensure a compliant friend in the region.

"They comply with environmental standards and are approved by the Cambodian government," said a Chinese diplomat who did not wish to be named. "We just want to help Cambodia as much as we can."

But the Chay Areng project hardly appears to be a model of transparency.

The deal was signed in late 2006 with China Southern Power Grid Co (CSG), one of China's two grid operators, to build a 260 MW plant at an estimated cost of $200 million and with a completion date of 2015.

With no prior consultation, the first villagers knew of the project was when Chinese engineers turned up this year to start working on feasibility studies -- details of which CSG and the government are reluctant to discuss.

Environmentalists who have conducted their own studies say the dam's lake will cover 110 sq km (42 sq miles) and displace thousands of indigenous people in nine villages.

More than 200 animal species, including elephants, sun bears, leopards and the endangered Siamese crocodile, would be affected upstream, said Sam Chanthy, head of the NGO Forum, a foreign-funded non-governmental organization in Phnom Penh.

Downstream, the delicate ecosystem of the flooded forest, home to some of the world's rarest turtle species as well as hundreds of types of migratory fish, would also be hit by disruptions to water flow, he said.

"It won't take long for these invaluable assets to disappear when the dam is built," said Eng Polo, of wildlife group Conservation International.

(Editing by Ed Cropley)