Four Missing After Chinese Dam Collapses

Four Cambodian construction workers are missing in Pursat province after part of a 120-megawatt hydropower dam being built by a massive state-owned Chinese company collapsed Saturday, officials said yesterday. 

Stung Atay dam November 2012 Jeremy Holden e1354523258605
The main reservoir of the Chinese-built Stung Atai dam in Pursat province is seen last month. (Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International)

Six other workers, including one Chinese supervisor, were injured while working at the Stung Atai dam—which was nearing completion in Veal Veng district’s O’Som commune—at about 1:30 p.m., said district police chief Theng Leng.

Four of the injured are in the district hospital after suffering serious injuries, while the Chinese supervisor and another Cambodian man were only slightly hurt, Mr. Leng said.

“District police, local police officers and local authorities are looking for the missing workers in a large reservoir,” Mr. Leng said, adding that a car at the building site was also washed away when the dam suddenly buckled.

The exact cause of the incident has not yet been confirmed, but Mr. Leng said that the workers had allowed water into a concrete tunnel in the lowest tier of the dam complex to test a turbine when the water blasted through the recently constructed part of the dam.

“The workers were swept away by a huge amount of water while a water gate on the dam was being tested,” he said.

Ith Praing, secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry Mines and Energy, said yesterday that energy department officials had already been sent to the site to investigate the incident.

“We only just heard that the accident took place,” he added, declining to comment further.

The 120-megawatt, $255 million dam—slated for completion next year and under construction by China Datang Corporation—is located in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest and is intended to provide power to both Phnom Penh and Battambang province.

The Stung Atai dam is one of at least six hydropower projects nationwide that the government has approved for construction by Chinese companies.

The 193-megawatt Kamchay dam, which was built by Sinohydro Corporation, has already begun operating in Kampot province. And last month, the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng province, which is being built by China’s Hydrolancang International Energy Co. Ltd., was approved by the Council of Ministers. There are many other dams planned to be constructed by firms from other countries such as South Korea.

The projects are largely funded by Chinese loans and it is hoped that they will address the country’s severe energy shortages and near-total dependence on electricity sourced from abroad and expensive diesel generators.

But environmentalists and rights groups have criticized such hydropower projects, citing concerns about the loss of fish stocks, land evictions and a lack of financial transparency.

Opposition SRP lawmaker Son Chhay yesterday called for the government to properly investigate the incident and to tighten regulations on all Chinese companies building dams in the country.

“I think they should have an independent investigation. The system in this country is so corrupt so they can cover up the crimes committed by companies,” Mr. Chhay said. “In any different country with proper regulation, they would not allow a company to operate after this kind of accident.”

Mr. Chhay added that in the future, an independent body should be charged with the oversight of safety on such large projects. He also said that while the price tag on large Chinese-funded projects often seemed very high, corners appeared to be cut on safety to lower costs, suggesting that funds may be channeled away from the projects.

He named the Prek Kdam Bridge in Kandal province and National Road 5, which runs between Phnom Penh and Banteay Meanchey province, as examples of Chinese projects that quickly deteriorated soon after they were completed.

“What happened at the [Atai] Dam site is unacceptable and needs to be fully investigated,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, an environmental watchdog, said in an email yesterday.

“In just the past two years, there have been numerous accidents and deaths at the Kamchay Dam and Lower Russei Dam sites [in Koh Kong province] in Cambodia.

“Only two weeks ago, Vietnam’s Dak Mek 3 Dam’s wall broke resulting in the death of one worker. Concerns with dam safety has also lead to the cancellation of 23 hydropower projects in Vietnam over the past few months,” she added.

Heng Sokeana, an administration official in the Pursat provincial governor’s cabinet, said that China Datang Corporation was developing the dam project under the name of local subsidiary (Cambodia) Hydropower Development Co. Ltd.

According to China Datang Corporation’s website, the firm “is a solely state-owned corporation directly managed by the CPC [Communist Party of China] Central Committee.”

China Datang Corporation will sell the power generated by the dam to the national supplier, Electricite du Cambodge, for 30 years after the dam’s completion, according to International Rivers.

In 2007, a project to install a system of cables to transmit power from the dam to Phnom Penh via Kompong Chhnang province and Battambang City was awarded to Yunnan Southeast-Asia Economy and Technology Investment Industrial Co. Ltd.

A 2008 International Rivers report stated that different company names for the projects were used to hide the fact that China Datang Corporation was the actual developer in both the dam and the transmission projects, which would be contrary to competition rules.

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