While critics fret over what will come of precious fish stocks once contractors finish the half-dozen dams either under or approved for construction across the rivers of Cambodia, vendors in Kampot province’s Bokor National Park have more immediate concerns.
Government officials say the 193-megawatt Kamchay dam within the park will cut electricity prices in Phnom Penh by as much as half by the time it’s fully operational some time next year.
But since work on the dam by the Sinohydro Corporation partly cut off the source of a popular waterfall at the nearby Toek Chhou resort, families who live off the local tourist trade say the project has cut their earning by half or more.
“Since the Chinese company started building the hydropower dam, we cannot do our good business,” said Sreyman, a 19-year-old food vendor in the park who declined to give her full name. “The guests visit here to swim and bathe, but when it doesn’t have water they don’t come.”
With the once gushing waterfall now reduced to a relative trickle, she said, the tourists who do still show up often turn back at the sight of the stagnant, knee-deep water at its base. It now takes a mean sales pitch just to convince those visitors to stay for lunch, said Mr Sreyman, who has watched her daily earning fall by two-thirds.
Ay Ngeng, 47, who has welcomed visitors to the resort with cake for the past 10 years, used to earn $20 a day. A good day now nets her $5.
“The visitors came here when it was good and there was enough water, but now there are no visitors,” she said. “I cannot sell my cakes. I don’t have enough money to support my children to go to school.”
Puth Sorithy, director of the environmental impact assessment department at the Environment Ministry, declined to comment by phone Wednesday on Bokor’s lost waterfall and insisted that the reporter request an interview my mail.
“It still has water,” he said before hanging up.
Kampot deputy provincial governor Heng Vantha conceded that work on the Kamchay dam had cut into the resort’s water supply but assured locals that conditions would one day return to normal.
“It does not serve visitors only for a period,” he said. “Next year it will not lack the water.”
He added that the government conducted an environment impact assessment of the dam prior to approval and that the project’s benefits will outweigh its drawbacks.
“Its effects are small but it provides a big advance,” Mr Vantha said.
When Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the first phase of the $280 million dam last month, the premier said the power plant would cut the capital’s electricity prices from $0.17 per kilowatt-hour to as little as $0.08.
Public-private power company Electricite du Cambodge, however, says prices aren’t likely to fall below $0.10 per kilowatt-hour, and NGO Forum worries the Kamchay dam will hurt local forests, threatened species, tourism, water supplies and the communities that depend on them all.
Toek Chhou’s vendors can only wait and see.
“We don’t know if this dam will benefit our community or not,” Ms Ngeng said. “We wait to see when it is finished.”