Malaysian Study Will Gauge Feasibility of Mekong Dam

For centuries, the Mekong River has pro­vided Cambodia and other count­ries in the region with an abundance of resources. The mas­sive river provides flood plains for rice and deep waters for fish, two main staples of most Cam­bodians.

But in the 21st century, the government sees in the river the po­tential for something even greater: electricity.

Properly harnessed, the Me­kong could provide electricity to the entire country, and then some, offic­ials say. That would require a dam, however, something environ­ment and fish ex­perts warn could have drastic implications. Any dam, they contend, could disrupt the Mekong and its patterns, potentially damaging the fishing industry, displacing people near the dam, or adversely affecting the Tonle Sap lake ecosystem.

The Cambodian National Me­kong Committee has promised to study all those pos­sible im­pacts and, in January, gave the go­-ahead for a feasibility study of the proposed $700 million Sam­bor or “Abundance” dam project.

The study is expected to begin in early May and last five to six months. A Malaysian consulting company called GIG Develop­ment Ltd has been approved to launch the study. Khieu Kokass, an official with the consulting group, said the com­pany will work with either a US or a Chin­ese-based company on conducting the study and event­ually building the dam.

Khy Taing Lim, director of the committee and Minister of Public Works and Transport, called the project a key to economic development in Cambodia.

“Complete peace has now re­turned, so we have to push for social and eco­nomic development,” Khy Taing Lim said. “The Sambor has the biggest potential” in achieving that goal, he said.

The plan involves building a 2-meter-high concrete diversion across the Mekong in Kratie province which would funnel water into a 20-km long canal, 350 meters wide and 30 meters high. The canal would run parallel to the river, and coupled with a hydroelectric plant, would be capable of producing 465 mega­watts of power.

Officials said the project was chosen over a $4 billion project that would have included a dam stretching across the entire Mekong and a plant generating 3,300 megawatts of power.

Cambodia currently uses around 120 megawatts of power, nearly all of it provided by diesel generators. But as the country develops, the government predicts it will need much more power.

By 2020, the country’s domestic needs could reach 800 mega­watts, according to Bun Narith, director of the hydropower depart­ment at the Ministry of Industry.

If built, the Sambor would result in electricity prices comparable to those in Thailand and Laos, Bun Narith said. It could also provide revenue as high as $100 million to $200 million per year from sales, he said.

But to see possible negative impacts, Cambodia needs only to look at some of its neighbors, said Mak Sithirith, environmental coordinator for the NGO Forum, an umbrella group of NGOs.

He pointed to the Pak Mool Dam in north­east Thailand, where fish migratory routes were disrupted, resulting in a reduction of species and a 90 percent decline in fish populations, according to Mak Sithirith and fisheries experts interviewed in 1998. Villagers also were displaced by the pro­ject.

Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen condemned Mekong dam development in China. Govern­ment officials at the time said they feared dam development in the up­per Mekong could ad­versely affect fish life here.

The Mekong annually moves sediment downriver, fertile soil which event­ually filters into rice paddies. A disruption in that pro­cess could mean trouble for farmers, critics warn.

In addition, the Mekong is an important breeding ground for fish, and is responsible for the trademark currents of the Tonle Sap and its ecosystems, said Nao Thuok, deputy director of Cam­bodia’s fisheries department in the Ministry of Agriculture. Crit­ics warn that any change to the Me­kong could alter these age-old currents. Entire ecosystems could be damaged if, for example, not enough water reached the lake to flood its forests.

Nearly 75 percent of Cambodia’s population requires fish for its protein intake, Nao Thuok said. “Cambodians…can live with no power, but they can’t live without fish…. I don’t oppose any development. But the cost and benefit must be studied very seriously.”

Citing a new figure from the Mekong River Commission, Nao Thuork said the fishing industry could potentially provide $250 million in annual revenue, more than what the dam could produce.

Instead of concentrating on a dam, he said, officials should shore up the fishing sector’s “mismanagement” problems.

“What’s the use of building the dam if the profit is lower than the fish revenue?” Nao Thuok asked.

Touch Seang Tana, a fisheries scientist, agreed the Sambor dam could harm fisheries and interrupt fish migration. Rapids on the river in the Sambor district of Kratie near the proposed dam site is one of the most important habitats along migration paths from the Tonle Sap lake, he said.

“If they build the Sambor Dam, fisheries and people’s livelihoods would be destroyed,” he said.

The dam could also put at risk the few freshwater dolphins living upstream from the proposed site, Touch Seang Tana said.

The National Mekong Committee has promised to look carefully at the impacts of the dam, citing the feasibility study as its most important decision-making tool.

Khy Taing Lim maintained that there would be no adverse impact because the dam would be designed to allow the water to flow as usual, without interrupting migration patterns.

Mak Sithirith of NGO Forum said he would not oppose the Sambor Dam as long as an environmental impact assessment were done and no negative impacts were found.

At least one environmentalist was unconcerned about the government moving forward with the project.

“I think the feasibility study can find out if there is more benefit [with the dam] than fishing, or if the dam will have no huge impact on the environment,” said Noeu Bonheur, Tonle Sap project chief for the Ministry of Environment. “So we don’t oppose [the dam].”







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