Government Defends Chinese Dams

Following a dam breach in Pursat province, ruling CPP lawmakers yesterday defended the government’s primary plan to tackle its energy crisis by contracting Chinese companies to build hydropower dams on the country’s rivers.

A section of concrete tunnel at the Stung Atai dam in Pursat province broke away on Saturday, seriously injuring four Cambodian workers and reportedly washing away three more. The three workers were still missing yesterday, said Puth Bunchhoeun, military police commander in Veal Veng district, where the dam is located.

“It’s hard to say whether they are dead or still alive, because we did not find their bodies,” he said.

In a National Assembly debate on the national budget for next year, SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said he was concerned that the dam breach may have been caused by substandard work by the state-run Chinese company, China Datang Corporation, which is in charge of the $255 million Atai dam project.

Finance Minister Keat Chhon told the Assembly that the dam incident was minor.

“The project is still good, but it will be delayed a bit in supplying electricity,” Mr. Chhon said. “We apologize for the injuries to the workers during the incident.”

But opposition parliamentarians said the government should reconsider its embracing of Chinese-built hydropower projects.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap responded to the opposition, saying that building hydropower dams, which are generally in mountainous, forested areas, was not easy.

“There are not many companies that want to invest in hydropower, there are only Chinese companies,” Mr. Yeap said. “They invest for 40 years, and they spend millions.”

The Stung Atai dam is one of six hydropower projects the government has approved for construction by Chinese companies. Chinese firm Sinohydro has already completed work on the 193-megawatt Kamchay dam in Kampot province. The government last month gave the go-ahead to China’s Hydrolancang International Energy Co. Ltd., alongside local firm Royal Group, to construct the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng province.

“If we don’t accept the quality of the dam construction at Atai, we should investigate the other hydropower dams being built,” SRP lawmaker Son Chhay told the Assembly.

“We want to know how the Chinese company got the license to develop the Lower Sesan 2 and we need an explanation,” Mr. Chhay said pointing out that the National Assembly had not had the opportunity to inspect the project.

Hydropower projects are the government’s main hope in addressing a chronic reliance on power from neighboring countries, and anachronistic diesel-powered generators, for electricity.

Following the debate, Mr. Chhay said the government was not taking his criticism seriously. He said he had concerns about the quality of Chinese infrastructure projects, which are compounded by the way contracts are awarded.

The loans that funded the projects were contingent on Chinese companies doing the work, Mr. Chhay claimed, adding that such a situation ruled out competitors.

“We borrow from China and the money goes to Chinese companies to construct the project without bidding,” he said, adding that lack of fair competition led to poor quality, and potentially unsafe, infrastructure developments.

A 2008 report from monitoring group International Rivers said it was difficult to “conclusively identify the source of financing” for the Chinese-built hydropower projects in Cambodia.

“There is, however, some evidence to suggest that the China Export-Import Bank and the China Development Bank are financing the Kamchay and Stung Atai hydropower projects respectively,” the report says.

China Export-Import Bank is also the financier of the Russei Chrum and Stung Tatai dams in Koh Kong province, according to information collected by International Rivers.

The report identifies these banks as “policy banks” that largely lend to projects that fit with the will of the central Chinese government.

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)

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