Cambodia may shelve plans to build the Chinese-backed Stung Chhay Areng dam, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said after talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday, a day after the government said it would forge ahead with the controversial project.
Sam Rainsy told reporters at the National Assembly (parliament) that construction of the 108-megawatt dam Cambodia’s southwestern Koh Kong province would not take place under the current five-year term of the government, which ends in 2018.
“Concerning the Areng hydroelectricity dam, Samdech (honorific) Hun Sen assured me that the construction might not occur,” the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said.
Hun Sen indicated he would let a “younger generation” of leaders decide on the fate of the the U.S. $400 million dam project to be built by Chinese construction and engineering giant Sinohydro Corporation.
The project, which has been opposed by residents in the area where it is to be built and criticized by environmentalists, was to cover an area of about 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres), including nearly 9,474 hectares (23,410 acres) for the reservoir, the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy said.
Sam Rainsy’s statement came a day after a senior official in Cambodia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy defended the project at a press conference in the capital, Phnom Penh.
The ministry’s Secretary of State Ith Prang said the dam would help develop ecotourism in the area and gave assurances that the government was working to reduce the project’s environmental impact.
Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem also submitted a letter last Saturday to the National Assembly, assuring lawmakers that the planned project would meet high environmental and social standards, The Phnom Penh Post reported.
In the letter, he said the environmental assessment was not complete, but the first phase had identified 113 bird species, 53 mammal species, and 31 reptile species that would be affected by the dam’s construction.
The project would impact more than 1,300 people from 350 families in the area, according to a report in The Cambodia Herald.
The government’s statement also said research on the project’s impacts was ongoing.
The minister issued the letter after Te Chanmony, acting chairperson of the National Assembly’s Commission on Environment and Water Resources, asked Hun Sen to intervene in the dam project to prevent forest and wildlife destruction in the Areng Valley.
Te Chanmony, a CNRP lawmaker, told RFA’s Khmer Service that her commission wanted the government to end its plans for the dam and turn the area into an ecotourism project because the impacts of the hydropower project would be more serious than any profit to be made from it.
Ith Prang on Tuesday also lashed out at a key critic of the hydropower dam project for opposing the impoverished country’s development plans and accused him of trying to reap political benefits for himself.
He said Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson, the Spanish director of environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, who has participated in demonstrations against the project, opposed the dam because he wanted to please those who donated money to his nongovernmental organization.
“If the NGO doesn’t oppose the dam project, then it doesn’t receive funding from donors,” Ith Prang said.
Gonzalez Davidson, other environmental activists and those who live in the Areng Valley where the dam will be built argue that the project will flood parts of the valley, displace residents and destroy the ecosystem and ancestral area of the Chong minority group that lives there.
Gonzalez Davidson told RFA that the dam would flood 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of land, not 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) as stated by the ministry.
In response to Ith Prang’s allegation that he was opposing the dam to please NGO donors, Gonzalez Davidson said Mother Nature Cambodia works to protect nature, not to raise money.
“Our donors are from Cambodia, and they have raised money to pay us to protect nature,” he told RFA.
“Our stand is that we recognize that Cambodia needs to develop the energy, but there are alternative energy resources,” he added about the dam project.
Gonzalez Davidson also said he had received an official document that the impact assessment already had been completed and Sinohydro intended to begin construction work soon, The Phnom Penh Post reported.
But Suy Sem denied that any firm had been hired to begin construction and project studies were still under way, despite reports that Sinohydro had already hired a subcontractor to work on the Areng dam project, according to the Khmer Times.
Gonzalez Davidson said Mother Nature Cambodia would demonstrate this week in the capital outside the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the local offices of Sinohydro (Cambodia) United and other firms involved in the dam project, the report said.
Earlier this month, Gonzalez Davidson was one of 11 environmental activists briefly detained for allegedly blocking officials from visiting the dam project site.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.