Environmental Experts Voice Concern About Effects of Dam Projects in Cambodia

One observer says the government must consider a clear strategic plan for each dam contract to address possible detrimental outcomes.

A Chinese company is building a dam on land previously owned by 880 families in Rotanak Mondol district in northwestern Cambodia's Battambang province, Sept. 17, 2015.

Cambodian environmental experts have expressed concern that the country’s various hydropower dams will harm the livelihoods of people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin, especially since the government is permitting investment projects to be built along the country's rivers despite expected negative impacts.

Experts attending an international conference on environmental change, agricultural sustainability, and economic development in the Lower Mekong Basin in Phnom Penh on March 16-18, said the dam construction will damage Lake Tonle Sap and the Sesan, Sekong, and Sre Pork rivers and their environs, which are home to endangered species and protected forests.

The rivers also provide a source of income for many rural people who make a living from them, they said.

Seak Sophath, head of the Department of Natural Resources Management at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, believes that policymakers and local authorities should conduct thorough studies on the impacts of the dam development projects and create strategic plans to deal with their consequences in order to mitigate risks to the rivers and to the lives of people who depend on them.

“One should take into account the other objectives of the dam construction,” he said. “Should they be built just to generate electricity or should they be built to hold water for agricultural purposes and retain water for human consumption during a dry season?”

“A clear strategic plan about each dam contract would need to be thoroughly considered,” he said.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy recently said the government will allow hydropower dam investment projects to be built along Cambodia’s rivers even if they have negative impacts on people and the environment.

Experts are also concerned that climate change, and in particular the construction of dams along the Mekong River, pose threats to the regular flow of water to lower-lying rivers.

Land concessions, mine exploration, and illegal logging are also having a negative impact on the rivers, they said.

In 2003, the government identified 60 potential sites for dam construction projects across Cambodia, most of which were on the Mekong River and its tributaries.

Two years later the government approved the first major hydropower project—Kamchay Dam—built by China’s Sinohydro Corporation, the country’s largest dam builder.

The dam, which became fully operational in December 2011, flooded 2,000 hectares of Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia’s Kampot province, home to several endangered species and an important resource for local communities.

Since then, the Chinese have developed scores of other dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian nations, prompting backlashes from environmental activists and residents alike.

In 2016, the government allowed the Royal Group Company to conduct a feasibility study for the construction projects of three dams in along the lower Sekong River in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.

Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.