Business is booming on Koh Pich.
Since development began in 2006—and about 300 families were pushed off what was then farmland—the island has slowly grown into the symbol of commercial modernity in Phnom Penh.
It is today the proud home of the Elite Town gated community and the Elite Golf Club—and a fire station—and will soon boast Phnom Penh’s own European-style riviera, complete with fine dining, riverfront condominiums and a theme park.
The developer, Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp., is also extending the island by 500 meters into the confluence of the Mekong and Bassac rivers to make room for a 555-meter-high tower, which would be the world’s second-tallest after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, if it is ever built.
But don’t ask for details.
Construction staff working on the expansion of the island on Monday were the most willing to discuss the development, saying that filling in of the river was already well under way.
“About 5 hectares of land has been put into the water surrounding the island,” the site manager said, confirming that the area near Koh Pich’s northern bridge would be used to build the 555-meter “Diamond Tower.”
However, Koh Pich project manager Touch Somnang said Monday that he knew few details about the land expansion under way or plans for the new tower.
“I am not sure about this. You should ask a technical person,” he said, before hanging up on a reporter.
Phnom Penh Municipal governor Pa Socheatvong declined to comment on the expansion, saying it was not the time to talk about the island.
“Please wait…until after the election when I can talk clearly about this,” he said.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth said that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was completed when Koh Pich’s development was originally approved in 2006, but that impacts on the island’s surrounds were of minimal concern.
“[The EIA] mostly concentrated on bank erosion, flow [regulation] and waste discharge treatment. Biodiversity and fish migration are not sensitive issues [in this area],” he said, adding that he was not authorized to release the Koh Pich study.
Mr. Mareth added that no EIA has been completed on Koh Pich’s latest expansion into the confluence of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, but that negative impacts from the project had so far not been noticed.
Ian Baird, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Mekong fisheries expert, said that the area surrounding Koh Pich was in fact critical for fish stocks.
“This is an important location for fish migration. Fish are first migrating between the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong, and then they’re coming back down into the Tonle Sap Lake [to spawn],” he said. “There should be a great deal of care taken in terms of any changes affecting this area.”
Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Son Chhay said Monday that lawmakers from his party had repeatedly asked the government to provide documents about the extension of Koh Pich and the proposed tower, but had yet to receive any information.
“We have written a letter to the government as members of Parliament about our concerns about the expansion of Koh Pich, [but] so far we haven’t gotten any response—we haven’t gotten any official plans or documents,” he said. “If there is some investment, it is up to the Ministry of Environment to study the project, and I think [if they did so], there would be no permission to develop this project.”
Simon Springer, an associate professor of geography at Canada’s University of Victoria who has researched the impacts of development on Phnom Penh’s cityscape over the past decade, said Tuesday that the secrecy surrounding Koh Pich was standard for Cambodia.
“It’s symbolic of the culture of silence that surrounds these kinds of projects. Other countries in the region probably still have to play the transparency game, but right now there’s so many opportunities for easy investment here,” he said. “Cambodia doesn’t have to play that game—it has no problem attracting new money from China, Japan and South Korea.”
“The real questions are what are they building it for and why aren’t they willing to talk about it?” he said, referring to Diamond Tower.
(Additional reporting by Dene-Hern Chen)
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