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Chinese Dam Projects Worry Environmentists

At least two large Chinese companies have received investment licenses to take over hydroelectric projects in Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Chinese companies are studying four other projects, officials said recently. But the dams seriously threaten the environment, according to two groups that released a report Monday.

Cambodia fuel prices are higher than its neighbors in the region. Only 20 percent of the people living in downtown areas have enough electricity. The Cambodian government has said there is a clear need to lower electricity costs.

And the plan has encouraged private sector to produce and share electricity. But the investment in Cambodian hydroelectricity is threatening the ecological system and could affect thousands of Cambodian people, International Rivers and the Rivers Coalition in Cambodia said in a report, issued Monday.

The report says five Chinese hydroelectric companies, including Sinohydro Corporation and Yunan Corporation for International Techno-Economic Corporation, received government licenses to invest more than $500 million.

Three other companies had an agreement with the government to study four projects.

The report says the Kamchay hydroelectric project in Bokor National Forest, Kampot province, invested by Sinohydro, flooded 2000 hectares of forest.

Stung Chhay Areng, in the central Cadramom Mountains, could flood nine villages, affecting about 1,500 people, most of whom are ethnic minorities.

The project could flood the habitat of at least 31 animal species that are almost extinct. Meanwhile, a Sambo hydroelectric project in the Mekong basin would block the habitat and migration routes of fish species.

Ngy San is vice president of the NGO Forum of Cambodia and a member of Rivers Coalition in Cambodia.

He urged the government to initiate a clear national program and said the government had not studied the consequences of the project licenses.

“The report says those investments are mostly or totally made based on politics, which means the leaders of the two countries meet with each other,” he said. “They decided with the facilitation of the engineers. So, we request that the government should come up with a national program on the investment of local hydroelectric development.”

Several government environmental officials declined to comment on the report.

Ith Prang, secretary of state of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said an impact study is conducted on every hydroelectric project, though some studies have not been concluded.

“We could not evaluate unless we have studied the environment around,” Ith Prang said. Officials in charge of commerce in the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh refused to be interviewed to clarify the rivers report.

Kim Sovann, a spokesman for Sinohydro, said he had not seen the report of the above organizations. But he confirmed several studies were undertaken before his company received a license to invest.

“My company and the Ministry of Environment sent our staff to the site several times,” Kim Sovann said.

Ngy San said the investment could mean a surplus in Cambodian electric power in a couple of years, which would have environmental consequences and bring uncertainty in the sale of power to other countries.

But Ith Prang said the electric power production increase would be done yearly, according to actual need.