A steady rise of new dams in Cambodia is becoming a platform for the country’s prime minister to showcase where the Southeast Asian kingdom’s ties with China – a late arrival among Cambodia’s foreign aid and development partners – is headed.
“The hydropower dam is just one of the numerous achievements under the cooperation between Cambodia and China,” Premier Hun Sen said in December at a ceremony in a remote South-western province of the country where the 338 megawatt Russei Chrum Krom hydropower dam is being built.
This US$500 million dam – being built by the Huadian Corp, one of China’s biggest state-owned power companies – is the largest of five Chinese dams under construction in energy-poor Cambodia, where only a fifth of the population of nearly 14.5 million have access to electricity.
Chinese companies are already carrying out feasibility studies for four more dams to be built, say environmentalists and grassroots activists worried about what such future hydropower projects portend.
“China plays a very important role in investment and development in Cambodia. But it should take account of the importance of EIAs [environmental impact assessments] and SIAs [social impact assessments],”
Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh, where his grassroots network for local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is based. “At times the EIA process is not open to the public and there is little time to comment,” Ath told Inter Press Service.
Global environmental lobbies, such as the US-based International Rivers (IR), confirmed that a full EIA for the Kamchay Dam has still not been completed four years after construction began. “Within the EIA process, the Chinese companies have not pursued best practices,” says Ame Trandem, a Southeast Asia campaigner for IR. “Public participation is limited or there is no participation. And the developer has not looked at alternatives.”
The Kamchay Dam is located “within Bokor National Park and will flood two thousand hectares of protected forest,” notes IR in a study titled ‘Cambodia’s hydropower development and China’s involvement’.
But Hun Sen leaves little room for such criticism leveled by environmentalists toward China. “Is there any development that happens without an impact on the environment and natural resources? Please give us a proper answer,” the region’s longest-serving leader said in a broadside fired at green groups during the December ceremony for the Russei Chrum Krom Dam.
For their part, some Chinese funders of development projects in Cambodia have begun to engage with local activists – worried at the price a country still recovering from two decades of civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime has to pay now that China’s footprint is expanding.
“I told a delegation of Chinese at a meeting last month that there were few EIA being done for Chinese projects,” Meas Nee, a Cambodian social development researcher, told IPS in a telephone interview. “And even when done and it looks good on paper, there are flaws because they have not been done properly.”
“The prime minister always praises Chinese support and the government prefers economic assistance from China because it comes with no conditions, unlike aid from the Western donors,” Nee says.