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Expansion of Diamond Island Brings Environmental Concerns

Real estate investment in the first quarter of this year was $1.4 billion, according to Land Management figures.

Real estate investment in the first quarter of this year was $1.4 billion, according to Land Management figures.

Diamond Island, at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, just off the mainland from Phnom Penh, was once home to a small community of 300 people. Today, it is a major development center for businesses and real estate, following the eviction of those families and major investment from a company with close ties to the government.

Now, development of the island is expanding even further, raising concerns about environmental degradation and social injustice.

The 100-hectare island, called Koh Pich in Khmer, was first developed in 2006 by Canadia Bank’s Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, then sold to make more than 1,000 condos, hundreds of villas, two international schools, a hotel and supermarkets—worth billions of dollars.

And more are on the way.

Um Bun An, sales manager for Casa Meridian, a $75 million development slated for completion in 2017, says 75 percent of the units were sold in the first few days they were made available. Of those buyers, seven out of 10 are Cambodians, she says. The rest are Chinese, South Korean, Japanese or Australian.

“The Cambodian customers mostly buy for investment or to give to their children,” he says. “The foreigners cannot buy houses or villas, so buying condos is their first choice, and they can claim sole ownership of this property.”

Other major projects include the Diamond Island Riviera, a $700 million development of condos, towers and even a replica swimming pool of Singapore’s Marian Bay, also slated for 2017 completion. The island already has wedding halls, a fire station, restaurants and an exhibition center.

The island has become a site unto itself.

“I come here twice or three times a month,” says Ean Sokuntheary, an 18-year-old high school student. “When I’m free from school, I sometimes drive around the island with my friends or family.”

People go there to eat in the evenings and to stroll around and look at the developments.

Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, a spokesman of the Ministry of Land Management, said the island is a multi-purpose business hub that will continue to expand in the future.

It is projects like Koh Pich that help drive Cambodia’s construction sector, one of its major economic drivers. Real estate investment in the first quarter of this year was $1.4 billion, according to Land Management figures. That’s an increase of 300 percent compared to the same period last year.

Real estate on Koh Pich goes for between $2,500 and $3,500 per square meter, thanks to its popularity and location, says Nuon Rithy, executive director for the Bunna Realty Group. “It is becoming a leading area and will be the heart of the city,” he says.

Some of that demand comes from a law passed in 2010 that allows foreigners to own apartments above the ground floor. That has spurred the construction of high-rises across the capital.

But now critics say Koh Pich development is going too far. The Cambodia National Rescue Party has requested details about a planned expansion of the island, but has received no response.

Son Chhay, a member of the Rescue Party, says expansion through fill can interrupt the flow of the Mekong and create problems along its banks, and a change in the river’s flow could affect fisheries.

About 500 meters of land expansion north into the river could interfere with fishing and fish migration, says Ian Baird, a fish expert for the Mekong region at the University of Wisconsin.

“Koh Pich area is an important area for fish migrations between the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, and that fish migrate in very large numbers out of the Great Lake at the end of the rainy season, and then they migrate back to the Tonle Sap at the beginning of the rainy season,” he wrote in an email. “This being the case, it is certainly important to ensure that construction and land expansion does not disrupt important fish passages in the area.”

Beng Hong Socheat Khemro said environmental and social impact assessments have been conducted and approved.

And so Koh Pich is likely to grow.