The Chinese company backing a controversial hydropower dam in Koh Kong province has hired another firm to build the structure and recently had a feasibility study endorsed in Beijing, fueling speculation the Cambodian government has given the project a green light.
If built, the 108-megawatt Stung Chhay Areng dam would flood thousands of hectares of pristine wilderness in the Cardamom Mountains, including a critical habitat for several endangered species, and is opposed by hundreds of ethnic Chong families who would be forced to move from their ancestral home in the Areng valley.
The government insists the project is still under review. But statements posted online by Sinohydro Resources, the Chinese company behind the dam, and a subcontractor show that the project is moving ahead, causing opponents to worry that Cambodia has already signed off on it.
A statement posted to the website of Cambodia Lancangjiang Engineering, which is also working on the Lower Sesan II dam in Stung Treng province, says the firm has been hired by Sinohydro.
“On January 28, 2014, my company and Sinohydro (Hong Kong) Holding Ltd. agreed and signed [a contract] for Cambodia’s Stung Chhay Areng dam project,” the statement says in Chinese.
A statement on Sinohydro’s website, also in Chinese, says the company’s feasibility study of the dam was reviewed at a September 10 to 12 meeting in Beijing by experts from the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute, which advises the Chinese government on energy matters.
“The participating experts were…divided into six groups to discuss the results,” it says. “They then wrote a review of the research. They said the study design and content were feasible, and that the conclusion of the study was suitable. The meeting has laid a solid foundation for the development of the project.”
Neither company could be reached for comment.
Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem on Sunday denied that any firm was hired to begin construction, and insisted that “studies” were still in the works.
“The company [Sinohydro] has not hired them,” Mr. Sem said. “It is not true.”
“How can [Sinohydro] hire someone if we have not yet signed off to let it do that?” he said. “The studies have not yet been finished, and we have only done the first step. More detailed studies have not yet been done.”
But environmental groups opposed to the project say the company’s statements suggest otherwise.
“This adds to our earlier suspicions that the dam may have already been approved by the Cambodian government,” said Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of the NGO Mother Nature, which has been fighting the project with the Chong families.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia project director for the U.S.-based International Rivers, agreed.
“This was most likely an engineering, procurement and construction contract (EPC), which generally obligates the company to build the dam,” Ms. Trandem said in an email.
“As EPC agreements are usually only signed after concession agreements to minimize financial risks should the project not be built, it appears that earlier suspicions by people in the Areng valley that the dam has already been approved may be correct,” she said.
In a “clarification” Saturday, the Mines and Energy Ministry dismissed a previous request by the opposition CNRP to cancel the dam project.
“The Royal Government will keep the project on its energy development plan list,” the statement says. “Currently, this project is under study, a technical study and a detailed study about the impact on the environment and society.”
In a letter dated September 18, CNRP lawmaker Te Chanmony, acting chairwoman of the National Assembly’s water resources and environment commission, requested that Prime Minister Hun Sen cancel the dam to prevent deforestation of the area and allow the minority Chong to remain on the land on which their traditional culture depends.
Until a few weeks ago, activists had been manning a roadblock along the only road in and out of the valley for several months in hopes of cutting off any attempts to start construction on the dam. Local soldiers recently cleared the makeshift camp and have remained posted at the site to keep the road open.
Phnom Penh authorities have also prevented the activists from protesting against the dam in the capital. Last week, activists pledged further protests against the project following the Pchum Ben holiday, which ended on Wednesday.