'Unnecessary' Dam Project Threatens Rarest Wildlife

Michael McCarthy
Monday, September 29, 2008

Originally published in The Independent 

One of the world's rarest reptiles, the critically-endangered Siamese crocodile, is gravely threatened by a proposed dam in an unspoilt region of Cambodia, British conservationists warn.

Construction of the Chay Areng dam in the Cardamom mountains will wipe out a fifth or more of the remaining population of the crocodiles, which stands at fewer than 200 individuals in the wild, according to Fauna and Flora International (FFI), which is based in Cambridge.

It will displace hundreds of indigenous people from their homes, and do enormous damage to the wildlife in a valley which alone holds more than 30 globally threatened species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, ranging from tigers, Asian elephants and pileated gibbons to the white-winged duck, the yellow-headed temple turtle and one of the world's rarest and most prized freshwater fish, the Asian arowana.

Furthermore, says FFI, an economic assessment showed that the 120ft dam, which is being promoted by a Chinese power company, is not necessary for Cambodia's future electricity demand and is in effect surplus to requirements. FFI is calling on the Cambodian government to cancel the scheme.

Were it to go ahead, the Siamese crocodiles would be the most notable casualties of the project in wildlife terms. The stocky, 10ft-long reptile, which feeds largely on fish and snakes, is extinct over 99 per cent of its original range, with tiny remaining groups in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam apart from Cambodia, where the Areng river habitat is the most secure and significant breeding site in the world, harbouring between 40 and 50 individuals.

If the Areng river is dammed, says FFI, this fragile population will be seriously reduced or wiped out. The inundation will destroy vital lakeside nesting areas, shallow feeding zones, sandy basking areas along the river, and essential lakeside burrows used for shelter. The organisation also fears that the 1,000-plus Chinese workers who will be brought in to build the dam will begin poaching the other wildlife in the valley, saying that this has happened in similar schemes elsewhere.

The whole range of the Cardamom mountains in western Cambodia has hitherto been one of the best unspoilt areas of montane rainforest in South-east Asia, having been protected from exploitation for decades by the region's wars. FFI says it is "the untouched jewel in the crown of Asian biodiversity".

But now it is being opened up, especially by the Chinese, who are offering to build hydropower and other generating infrastructure for the Cambodians in exchange for a future share in the country's untapped natural resources, which include oil and gas. Many of the rivers of the Cardamom range have dams proposed for them, and one, at O'Som, is already going ahead.

FFI says its recognises that Cambodia needs more electricity and some of it will come from hydropower. But it says that a 2007 report, the Master Plan Study of Hydropower Development in Cambodia, commissioned by the Japan International Co-operation Agency and the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy, identified 10 priority sites that would be sufficient to meet the projected national demand - and significantly, these did not include the Chay Areng.

"The Areng dam is unnecessary and surplus to requirements," said Jenny Daltry, a senior conservation biologist with FFI. "Hundreds of households of an indigenous people, the Khmer Daeum, will be displaced and have to move. These are people who have been there for hundreds of years and who really do live in harmony with nature and have set up their own protected areas in the forest, and six villages of them will go, and possibly seven.

"In wildlife terms, it will be a disaster. The crocodiles, which represent at least a fifth of the world's population in the wild, will disappear and there will be catastrophic damage to other wildlife.

"It is still up to the Cambodian government to approve or reject the proposal from the Chinese company and we strongly feel it should be rejected."