July 27, 2021

Special Report: Business of Green: Chinese Dam Project in Cambodia Raises Environmental Concerns

KAMPOT PROVINCE, CAMBODIA — Ever since she was a child, Bun Thavry and her family have ventured into the nearby hills above the Toek Chhou river in Kampot Province to chop down bamboo plants to weave into baskets.

But after the Chinese company Sinohydro, one of the world’s largest construction companies, started work on the 193-megawatt Kamchay Dam in 2007, access to the countryside surrounding this tranquil town has been restricted. Mrs. Thavry’s husband, Kim Sopha, 39, like hundreds of others in nearby villages, must now travel about 10 kilometers, or 6 miles, beyond the dam site to collect the bamboo.

“Before, all you needed was a bicycle and a knife,” Mrs. Thavry, a 32-year-old mother of two, said recently as she perched on a small stool outside her wooden home near the riverbank. “But it’s completely different now.”

Today, villagers must take a truck and a boat to arrive at an unrestricted area where bamboo plants grow. Mrs. Thavry’s husband sometimes spends a week at a time in the forest to maximize his pickings and reduce travel expenses.

Downstream from the Kamchay Dam, inaugurated last month by Prime Minister Hun Sen, giant boulders bake in the sun where river waters once flowed. Owners of riverfront restaurants complain that business has fallen now that there is often no water to attract customers who might also enjoy a swim.

Cambodia’s economy grew 6.5 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. To keep up with demand, the government wants to increase its domestic energy production from less than 1,000 megawatts currently to more than 10,000 megawatts through the construction of more than 20 hydropower dams all over the country.

Like Laos, which has 10 dams under construction and 25 more planned, Cambodia wants to sell to other countries a portion of the electricity generated from its new dams. The government has also said it wants to increase the domestic supply as a way to reduce dependence on imports, to lower energy costs at home and to create more jobs.

“The expected benefits of these projects are huge, including cheap electricity, new job and business opportunities, ‘greener’ energy and wider energy source diversity,” Maria Patrikainen, an analyst based in London for IHS Global, said by e-mail.

Ms. Patrikainen and environmentalists also say, however, that the dams would do more harm than good, and that situations like those being played out in Kampot Province could soon be repeated millions of times over, affecting the livelihoods of families like the Thavrys.

The most worrisome threat posed by the dams, some environmentalists say, is to food security for the rural population of Cambodia, people who depend heavily on fish as a source of protein.

“Large dams disrupt the ecosystems of rivers, block vital fish migration routes and stop nutrient-rich sediment from flowing downstream to the country’s riverbank gardens and rice fields,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, an organization based in the United States, said by e-mail from Bangkok. “Their reservoirs also often lead to the displacement of large numbers of people and the clearing of the country’s forests.”

Large dams, she said, “can destroy livelihoods and food security, exacerbate poverty and lead to human rights violations.

“While each project proposed in Cambodia comes with a different set of impacts, large dams are likely to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, increase malnutrition levels and lead to an environmentally unsustainable future,” she said.

Most of the attention has been focused on the proposed 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi Dam in Laos, the first dam planned for the lower Mekong River, which runs through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. But environmentalists assert that dams planned farther downstream on some of the Mekong’s major tributaries in Cambodia would be just as damaging.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/business/global/17iht-rbog-cam17.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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