Government officials say the recent killer floods in the south prove that the country needs to build a controversial $200 million dam project in Kompong Speu province as soon as possible.
Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor confirmed last week the government wants to move quickly on the Prek Thnowt Dam project, primarily in order to control flooding and irrigate the often draught-stricken area.
In addition to courting the Japanese for aid, officials are trying to interest a Chinese delegation that arrived last weekend to examine proposed irrigation projects in Cambodia. “The Cambodian government places high priority on this dam because if the dam is built we will no longer fear the floods are going to destroy us,” said Lim Kean Hor.
At least five children drowned in recent flooding, and hundreds of families were left homeless.
Government officials estimate that Cambodia has suffered a total of $100 million of flood damage since 1991. Kompong Speu and surrounding areas are particularly vulnerable to flash floods because of soil erosion in the rapidly deforested mountain ranges, officials say.
The Prek Thnowt dam, about 60 km southwest of Phnom Penh, was abandoned during the 1970s. Its reconstruction is conceived as a series of five earth-filled dams that would stretch more than 10 km in length in Kompong Speu’s Oral, Phnom Sruoch and Samraong Tong districts and reach 28.3 meters high. The dam would generate about 18 megawatts of power and help irrigate 70,000 hectares of downstream land in Kompong Speu, Takeo and Kandal provinces.
Environmentalists, however, are concerned about the social and environmental impacts. According to a 1994 report, about 17,700 people living in 43 villages would be displaced by the project, as well as 43 public offices, 15 schools and 11 temples. Entire communities would be under as much as 18 meters of water.
The Japanese company’s report estimates that $29 million would be needed to prepare land, houses, public facilities, roads, water, drainage, electricity and other services for the displaced.
Shaun Williams, a land expert with Oxfam, said an environmental-impact assessment needs to be conducted before the project is allowed to begin. The Council of Ministers approved an EIA subdecree last month, but “we still haven’t seen what procedures will be applied to assess projects in terms of environmental and social issues.”
Williams also said participation by local communities must be encouraged.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth said he is supportive of the move to build the Prek Thnowt Dam because it could significantly contribute to flood control as well as produce such economic benefits as irrigation and hydropower.
“Regarding the Prek Thnowt dam development, I am not opposing it because we could have more economic benefits than the cost of the project,” Mok Mareth said. “We have to sacrifice ourselves for it.”
There has been talk of the project for several years, but donors have discouraged it because of the high price tag—equal to roughly 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
But now officials are arguing that the project makes economic sense, in part because of the cost of flooding in recent years. The recent flash floods confirmed the feeling of several government leaders that Cambodia has no ability to control flooding.
Min Sareth, director of the Kompong Speu provincial agricultural office, admitted that the dam would create displacement and compensation issues. But he said provincial officials have identified three places upstream in Oral and Phnom Sruoch districts where people could resettle and cultivate rice.
“This is our national pride at stake,” Min Sareth said. “More importantly, it will give a better life to Kompong Speu villagers when the dam gets built.”
Veng Sokhon, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Water Resources in charge of international relations and dam affairs, said he just returned from Japan to try to drum up interest from Japan’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund.
But he acknowledged that the Japanese questioned the economic benefits and raised concerns about how Cambodia would repay the loan.
“We explained over and over” that there would be multiple economic benefits, such as irrigation, flood control and hydropower, Veng Sokhon said.
Cambodia’s chief dam technician Bun Heang also expressed frustration. He said Japanese delegations that visited Cambodia earlier this year, including in June, complained about the cost of the project, displacement and environmental concerns. For example, they noted that the dam would cost five times the amount Japan is loaning to help develop Sihanoukville port. “They kept saying the same things,” he said.
“For me as well as the government, it is most important to get the Prek Thnowt Dam Project started as soon as possible because according to our assessment the economic benefit is higher than the cost,” said Bun Heang.
A commercial official for the Japanese embassy confirmed the concerns especially about resettlement and environmental costs.
“At the moment, there is no decision because no study is completed yet. We need…everything to be studied,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
Japan also has indicated that it wouldn’t be likely to finance the entire project.
For that reason, the government also is trying to persuade China to help with the reconstruction of Prek Thnowt instead of the Stung Chinit dam in Kompong Thom province.
The issue is being raised with 12 Chinese dam experts who are studying Stung Chinit and the Vai Kor dam project in Prey Veng province.
Bun Narith, director of hydropower department at the Ministry of Industry, also stressed the importance of the Prek Thnowt dam to economic development in the capital.
He said the power generated would go mainly to the string of light industries along Route 4, and a number of other enterprises in Phnom Penh.