Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Chinese Dams Threaten Cambodian Eco-Systems

PHNOM PENH (AFP)--Cambodia's two largest dam projects threaten to flood huge swathes of protected forests, a conservation group has said, urging reform in the country's burgeoning hydropower sector.

International Rivers Network, in a report released late Monday, said that the Kamchay and Stung Atay dams, which seek to provide much-needed electricity to the country, will instead wreak havoc on local communities and slow development.

The US-based group targets in particular Chinese investment in the sector, which it said is powering forward through close ties between Cambodia's government and Beijing, unchecked by public scrutiny.

The projects highlight the "growing interest in large-scale hydropower dam development by Cambodian decision makers backed mainly by Chinese project developers and financiers," the group said.

"Chinese investment in Cambodia's hydropower sector is threatening some of the country's most precious eco-systems and the livelihoods of thousands of people." Funded largely by a $600 million Chinese aid package, the Kamchay Dam is located entirely inside Cambodia's Bokor National Park and will flood 2,000 hectares of protected forest, the group said.

Once completed in 2010, it will also force local residents from the area, stripping them of their livelihoods, and could threaten downstream tourist sites, International Rivers said.

Protected forests in Cambodia's Cardamom mountains will also be submerged by the Stung Atay Dam, which is expected to come online in 2012, and four others currently under consideration.

"Cambodia's free-flowing rivers and abundant natural resources are invaluable assets," said Carl Middleton, Mekong program coordinator with International Rivers.

"Poorly conceived hydropower development could irreparably damage these resources and undermine Cambodia's sustainable development." Only an estimated 20 percent of households have access to reliable electricity in Cambodia, one of the world's poorest countries.

Spiraling utility prices, driven by this lack of supply, are a major obstacle to attracting foreign investment, and the government has struggled to find a way to bring down the cost of power.

International Rivers urged Cambodia to seek alternate power sources, or adopt international standards within its own utilities sectors.

"Cambodia has many choices for meeting our electricity needs, including renewable and decentralized energy options that must be explored" said Ngy San, deputy executive director with the NGO Forum on Cambodia.

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