Gov’t Defends Plans for Controversial Dam

The Ministry of Mines and Energy sought to downplay the potential social and environmental impacts of a proposed hydropower dam in Koh Kong province Tuesday, countering some of the claims of nongovernmental groups that have been fighting the project along with ethnic Chong families living in the area.

The 108-megawatt Stung Chhay Areng dam would flood thousands of hectares of the Cardamom Mountains, including the ancestral lands of hundreds of Chong families and the habitat of several rare species, including the Siamese crocodile. The government says it has yet to approve the project, but opponents fear China’s Sinohydro Resources has been given the green light to proceed, and that ongoing impact studies are a mere formality.

At a press conference at the Ministry of Mines and Energy on Tuesday morning, Secretary of State Ith Praing insisted that the government had not approved construction and accused critics of exaggerating the dam’s potential impact.

“If we listen to such things, it would seem like the Chhay Areng hydropower dam project is active and the forest is being cut down all over,” he said. “In fact, the dam is in the study phase. It is not yet active.”

Mr. Praing also accused the main NGO opposed to the dam, Mother Nature, of inciting the Chong families to fight the project—for its own financial gain.

“How can it make money if it doesn’t use the villagers as a shield or take pictures of the villagers joining protests, blocking the road and opposing development?” he said. “I pity the villagers because they’re being tricked to join in their activities.”

The ministry said the dam’s reservoir would flood only 9,500 hectares of land, less than half of the 20,000 hectares the NGOs claim, and released a detailed map of the area prepared by Sawac, the company hired to conduct the impact assessments.

According to the map, only about half of the proposed reservoir is covered by forest, with orchards, rice paddies and fallow fields comprising most of the remainder.

Mr. Praing said an initial impact assessment identified 240 animal species in the area and that the next step was to study their migration routes to see how the effects of a dam on their welfare might be mitigated.

Contacted after the press conference, Mother Nature cofounder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson said he remained skeptical of the government’s claim that the reservoir would flood less than 10,000 hectares. He pointed to a report that Conservation International, which works with the government in the Cardamom Mountains, released when a previous company was involved in the project a few years ago, showing the proposed reservoir covering 20,000 hectares.

“I’m not saying they’re wrong or right, but there’s a difference between our map and their map,” Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said.

“And it’s not only about how many hectares of forest will be flooded,” he added, noting the quarries, transmission lines, sand dredging and out-of-bounds logging that invariably accompany dam projects. “It’s about the direct impacts and the indirect impacts.”

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson also questioned the ministry’s claim that only about 1,300 people lived in the area. He said that roughly 1,500 people were found living inside the proposed reservoir four years ago and that others had moved in since.

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