Kith Meng, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, is behind three proposed hydropower dams, the Council of Ministers has confirmed, including what would be the largest by far on the main stream of the Mekong River in Cambodia.
The Royal Group chairman, whose business interests range from ANZ Royal Bank to cellular service provider Cellcard, already has a stake in the Lower Sesan II dam in Stung Treng province. The 400-megawatt hydropower project is nearing completion after being plagued by accusations of illegal logging, forced evictions and heavy damage to local fish stocks.
An October 31 letter from the Council of Ministers obtained by reporters links the company to three other proposed dams: the 900-MW Stung Treng; the 190-MW Lower Sekong, also in Stung Treng, and the 2,600-MW Sambor dam in Kratie province.
All three projects have been on the government’s drawing board for years, part of its plans to lower some of the highest electricity prices in Southeast Asia.
In its letter, the Council of Ministers “agrees in principle” to let the Royal Group sign a memorandum of understanding with the Mines and Energy Ministry to “thoroughly conduct” pre-feasibility, feasibility and social and environmental impact studies of the three dams.
After inviting professional and public input on the studies, it says the government “will decide whether to permit investment in the three projects” before allowing Royal Group to enter contracts with Vietnam or Cambodia “as needed.”
Neither the ministry nor Royal Group responded to questions about whether the memorandum has since been signed and what, if any, progress had been made on the required studies.
The proposed Stung Treng and Sambor dams would be the first to straddle the main stream of the Mekong in Cambodia and would dwarf the Lower Sesan II, which will be the largest dam in the country when finished.
The Sambor, the largest of the proposed dams, has environmental protection groups especially worried. U.S.-based International Rivers said its construction would be a “tragic and costly mistake.”
Critics warn that the dam would block major fish migrations between southern Laos and the Tonle Sap lake, destroy fish pools and upend the Mekong’s natural ecology, jeopardizing fisheries vital to the country’s economy and food security. It could also destroy critical habitat of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.
Maureen Harris, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia program director, said Cambodia’s future dams on the mainstream Mekong had to be considered in tandem with those upstream in Laos and China.
“With dams built on the Mekong we are also looking at not just the impacts of any one project, but the cumulative impacts of all the dams being built or proposed on mainstream. A number of studies, including a Strategic Environmental Assessment commissioned by the MRC [Mekong River Commission] in 2010, predict that the cumulative impacts of the Sambor dam on a Mekong dam cascade will be severe,” she said by email.
The same study predicted that the Sambor dam could displace as many as 20,000 people, on par with the evictions of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community in the last decade, which triggered a five-year freeze on new lending to Cambodia by the World Bank in protest.
Ms. Harris said the Council of Ministers letter was a bad sign that the government was pushing ahead with the proposed new dams despite the remaining concerns surrounding the Lower Sesan II, and the company backing it.
“Royal Group’s involvement in those projects does not help provide assurance that social and environmental concerns will be effectively addressed. Concerns over the Lower Sesan II dam’s very serious impacts, not just in Cambodia but also in neighbouring countries, have never been adequately acknowledged or addressed, including a study predicting 9.3 percent decrease in fish stocks across the entire Mekong Basin,” she said.
And that was for a dam on a tributary of the Mekong.
The hundreds of families living in the way of the Lower Sesan II were not consulted before construction began, and are being forced off their land in exchange for compensation that NGOs say falls below market value.
Many fear that the inland relocation sites chosen for them will make for harder living than their riverine homes. The going offer for the dam’s evictees is a new plot of land for a home, five hectares of farmland and the choice between a free house or $6,000 cash. Though some are still holding out, many have taken the deal, worried that the alternative is to receive nothing at all.
The project has also been dogged by claims that Royal Group’s rights to clear trees from the planned reservoir is being used to launder timber logged illegally beyond the reservoir’s designated boundaries.
As with the Lower Sesan II, Royal Group is unlikely to move ahead with the other dams without a foreign partner.
According to International Rivers, Vietnamese media reported in 2011 that state-owned Electricity Vietnam reached a deal with Cambodia’s Mines and Energy Ministry for a joint study of the Lower Sekong dam. It’s not known whether the utility is still involved or whether it ever carried out the study. The company was also involved with the Lower Sesan II before selling off either all or most of its stake in 2012.
Royal Group ended up partnering with China’s Hydrolancang International Energy on the Lower Sesan II.
A host of Vietnamese and Chinese companies have also been tied to the Stung Treng and Sambor dams. International Rivers says the Mines and Energy Ministry hired the U.S.-based Natural Heritage Institute in 2013 to redesign the latter, after China Southern Power Grid pulled out of the project, describing itself as a “responsible company,” but the full results were never made public.
In Stung Treng, provincial government spokesman Men Kung said this week that the governor informed his staff last month that new studies on the Stung Treng and Lower Sekong dams would start soon.
“I don’t know the details, but I know they are on the Mekong and Sekong rivers,” he said.
Chum Huor, a member of local advocacy group Youth for Social and Environmental Protection, has helped organize protests against the proposed Sambor dam over the government’s opaque planning process. He said he worried that the Council of Ministers’ recent approval of new studies foreshadowed a repeat of the Lower Sesan II project, which started construction on the heels of studies that local communities were given no time to consider or comment on.
“We have an experience with the Lower Sesan II, when the government sent officials to study the project and it sent machines there at the same time or soon after,” he said. “They said they would study it before starting construction, but they did not have a detailed consultation with the people and the affected communities first.”
Mr. Huor said he would also organize protests against any banks that helped fund the proposed dams.
Last year, rights groups revealed that the International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank, helped finance the construction of the Lower Sesan II.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the International Monetary Fund, rather than the International Finance Corporation, had helped finance the Lower Sesan II dam.