The government wants to build a $100 million underwater aquarium along one of the country’s major rivers and is looking to Japan to foot the bill as part of efforts to protect the environment and attract tourists, according to senior officials.
In a post to his Facebook page on Friday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the plans, which he said were discussed during a meeting in his office building with Takahashi Fumiaki, president of the Japan-Cambodia Association, and Yamada Sohiko, an architect and potential developer.
“The aquarium project would not only attract tourists, but also provide the opportunity for nationals and internationals to conduct research regarding fish species, and preserve fish species in Cambodia,” the post said, adding that the center would also develop and share methods for fishing communities to raising different and healthier fish species.
“We expect the freshwater aquarium in Cambodia would attract a lot of tourists,” with a visitor count second only to the Angkor Wat temple among attractions in Cambodia, it said.
Mr. Hun Sen called for the creation of an inter-ministerial commission headed by Land Management Minister Chea Sophara and Sok Chenda Sophea, secretary-general at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, to “study the location and impacts clearly in order to make the project a reality, which would be a legacy for Cambodia and Asean nations as a whole.”
Agriculture Minister Veng Sokhon said on Sunday that the government would need about 10 to 20 hectares of land along either the Mekong River or Tonle Sap, or the place where they converge, to build the aquarium, which would highlight the country’s diverse riverlife.
Mr. Sokhon said Mr. Fumiaki initially proposed the idea to him about four months ago, suggesting that the center be located on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula in front of the Sokha Hotel.
The agriculture minister described an underwater aquarium made almost entirely of glass that visitors and researchers would access from underground entrances. He was wary, however, of the potential risks of building such a facility where the country’s major rivers converge.
“I have seen that the location is very complicated, because…the project could affect the current of the water, which means water could flow slower from the Tonle Sap river, and subsequently the height of Tonle Sap water would be less,” he said.
Mr. Sokhon said another challenge would be cleaning up the water around the aquarium. “A lot of money would be needed to clean the water of alluvial soil that is already very high,” he said.
The environmental complexities combined with the potentially long waiting period to secure funding could mean another four to ten years before construction on the aquarium starts. “However, if the Japanese government is really committed to helping us, I think it would take at least one year to start the project,” he added.
As for the $100 million in grant aid Cambodia hopes to receive, he said “it is not easy, as is my experience, in requesting assistance from Japan.”
Ross Sinclair, Wildlife Conservation Society country program director, said he was not aware of the plans, but that anything contributing to increased awareness about the country’s diverse marine life would be a positive step.
“The freshwater wildlife in Cambodia is incredible—it’s one of the most biodiverse environments on the planet,” he said. “Opening an aquarium where Cambodians and others can learn about…the rich biodiversity here is ultimately a good thing.”
(Additional reporting by Hannah Hawkins)