NGO Wary of Promise to Cancel Hydropower Dam Project

Conservationists remain wary of the government’s recent pledge to sideline construction of the controversial Chhay Areng hydropower dam after finding the project on the Mines and Energy Ministry’s new to-do list.

After a February 17 Council of Ministers meeting, the government announced that plans to build the dam in the heart of Koh Kong province’s pristine Cardamom Mountains were indefinitely on hold and being replaced by an upgrade to an existing coal-fired power plant far away. At the time, council spokesman Phay Siphan said Prime Minister Hun Sen wanted to preserve the site for its ecotourism potential.

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A man drives a motorbike in 2015 across an exposed section of the Stung Areng riverbed, where the walls of the proposed dam would be built. (Zsombor Peter/The Cambodia Daily)

The same day, however, Mr. Siphan posted to his Facebook page part of the Energy Ministry’s 2017 to 2030 master plan, including power projects that “have to be developed.”

The list includes both the expansion of the coal-fired plant in Preah Sihanouk province and the Chhay Areng dam, scheduled to go online in 2023.

Contacted on Tuesday, Mr. Siphan said the prime minister’s decision at last month’s meeting to preserve the Areng valley for tourism took precedence and insisted that the dam was effectively off the development list.

“It was a proposal, but the prime minister stated clearly that he is not going to allow” it, he said. “The Environment Ministry is going to comply with what the prime minister said.”

Energy Ministry spokesman Victor Jona said the master plan was created before this year and remained a “living document.”

“The Ministry of Mines and Energy reserves the rights to deviate from that plan. In fact, the master plan is revised every three to five years,” he said.

But the dam’s opponents, who welcomed the government’s claims to put tourism ahead of electricity in the valley, remain skeptical.

NGO Mother Nature spent years campaigning against the project, warning that it would flood vital habitats for some rare and endangered animals, and the ancestral land of hundreds of indigenous minority Chong. Co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national, was deported from Cambodia in early 2015 over an illegal checkpoint he had helped to man along a road leading in and out of the Areng valley.

He said the dam’s inclusion on the ministry’s new master plan made it hard to believe the word of a government that has proved willing to sign over vast tracts of protected areas to damaging development projects.

“The government’s greed and ignorance eventually supersedes all decision-making and all relevant laws, as we have seen time and again in Cambodia,” he said. “Second, if the government had truly abandoned plans to build the Areng dam for good, then why are they proceeding with building high voltage transmission lines across the site of the proposed dam? Is it to eventually connect the dam to these lines?”

At the same meeting last month at which the Council of Ministers supposedly froze the Areng dam project, it approved the construction of a power line from Phnom Penh to the operating Stung Tatai dam in Koh Kong that will cut through the Areng valley.

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said the government would do much better at convincing the public that the Areng dam was dead by sparing the valley the power line and granting the Chong families the communal land title they have been seeking for years.

Communal titles are designed to give indigenous communities added protection against outside developers, but NGOs have criticized the government for approving very few of them since making them available in 2001.

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