A proposed dam in Bokor National Park could wreak havoc on the protected forest and the people of nearby Kampot town, but the decision to build it is being made quietly and without informed local input, environmentalists say.
Representatives of the Canadian International Development Agency, a Canadian government agency, traveled to Kampot recently to conduct a feasibility study, funded by the agency and Canadian dam-building company Experco. “There will be a dam after the study is finished,” said Tun Lean, director of the energy department of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.
The so-called Khamchay Dam would provide hydroelectric power to the area by damming the Khamchay River, Kampot’s main water source, in the Touk Chou valley of the park. As part of the project, a new road would be built.
But such a dam would inundate the area with a large amount of water, ruin drinking water and irrigation by contaminating them with salt water, and disrupt the ecosystem of the park, said Tep Bunnarith, acting director of the Culture and Environment Protection Association, who was involved in local consultations on the project.
Tep Bunnarith said government and park officials at the local meetings, as well as the agency conducting the study, clearly wanted to build the dam and weren’t interested in NGOs’ concerns.
The villagers at the meetings were enthusiastic about the project—but they didn’t understand the consequences because they hadn’t been given fair information, Tep Bunnarith claimed.
“[The company is] promising the villagers five years of employment, so they’re happy,” said Tim Redford, deputy director of WildAid Asia, who also participated in the meetings in Kampot. “But the long-term effects are damaging in so many aspects, and the people have not had access to that information.”
The dam has been presented to the villagers as inevitable, Redford complained. “It looks like the government’s already signed off on it. The process is not very transparent, and it’s moving far too fast to be effective.”
Although the project has not yet received the official go-ahead, Tun Lean spoke of it as a foregone conclusion. The question, he said, is not whether the dam will be built, but how it will be funded.
Tun Lean said he was convinced by the study that the environmental impact of the dam would not be serious. “There will be an impact on the forest, but not the people, since there is nobody living there,” he said. “We are concerned about the impact, but maybe not so afraid.”
Nipa Banerjee, the Canadian government’s development counselor and head of aid for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, wrote in an e-mail: “I can assure you…that CIDA is very conscious to support environmentally sustainable projects only and thus it will take all steps to ensure that the Feasibility Study adequately and satisfactorily covers the environmental issues related to this project.”
Extensive public consultations are part of the dam study, Banerjee wrote. “I can also confirm that the reservoir planned for the project will have very limited coverage. I understand…that there is no settlement in this area,” she added.
Internationally, dams are coming under fire from environmentalists, who say they are a boondoggle for governments and a disaster for natural resources.
A World Bank commission that included dam-building industry representatives concluded in a study last year that the world’s 45,000 hydroelectric dams have caused “unacceptable” social, economic and environmental damage. They often do not work properly or pay for themselves, the study reported.
“The people [in Kampot] should have the information about what dams have done in neighboring countries,” Tep Bunnarith said.
Russell Peterson of the NGO Forum said the way the project is proceeding is at least as worrisome as the dam itself. “Our concern is that the Cambodians [in Kampot] haven’t been given enough information—[the dam] has been presented as a fait accompli,” he said.
“The organizations that are now concerned about this were only invited to be part of the process after they heard about it through the grapevine and insisted they be included.”
The NGO Forum held a meeting in its offices with representatives from the Canadian agency. Several NGOs signed a letter sent to Canadian Ambassador Norman Mailhot.
“It would be better for [the NGOs] to make their concerns known directly to the Cambodian authorities concerned,” said Mailhot, who confirmed Thursday he has received the letter.
“The Cambodian government makes the decisions about where dams are built. It’s a sovereign government that makes its own decisions.” The Canadians are merely funding the feasibility study, Mailhot said.