Cambodia is seeking to play down concerns from Vietnam about a Chinese-funded canal project that would connect the Gulf of Thailand with inland tributaries of the Mekong River.
Jean-Francois Tain, a foreign affairs aide to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, said the premier reassured Hanoi about the planned project during an official visit December 11-12. Vietnam had raised concerns that the project would affect its use of the flow of water downstream.
Hun Manet told the Vietnamese that “the project will not incur any negative impacts on the flow of the Mekong or other rivers while maintaining a stable environment, ecology and natural habitat for biodiversity,” Tain told reporters on December 13. “Cambodia has presented the results of a number of studies showing that there are no environmental impacts.”
VOA asked the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh for comment on the project but did not receive a response.
Cambodia’s government approved the 180-kilometer-long Funan Techo Canal project in May. The $1.7 billion project, which is part of the Chinese government's Belt and Road Initiative, would connect the coastal province of Kep with Kandal and Takeo provinces inland.
The canal is designed to be 100 meters wide upstream and 80 meters wide downstream and have a consistent depth of 5.4 meters. It is the latest infrastructure project financed by China after the $2 billion Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville expressway and the $1.3 billion Phnom Penh-Bavet expressway.
Cambodia’s total foreign debt stands at almost $10 billion, 41% of which is owed to China, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of Economy and Finance.
The planned canal would reduce the transit time between ports in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh and improve the livelihoods of more than 1.6 million people living along the route, according to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
Chea Chandara, president of the Logistics and Supply Chain Business Association in Cambodia, told The Phnom Penh Post that once completed, the canal “will be an important part of enhancing our ability to export Cambodian goods. Waterway shipping is usually cheaper than land and air transport, and the amount of goods transported by waterway is also large and does not cause damage to roads or traffic congestion.”
While Cambodia signed regional cooperation agreements on Mekong management with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in 1995, Cambodian officials have argued that the Funan Techo project is exempt because it connects to Mekong tributaries only within Cambodia, and it requires only that the other countries be informed.
"In the case whereby we use the tributaries in our country, we do not have to ask for permission from the other three countries. We will just need to inform them,” Sun Chanthol, former minister of public works and transport, said in June.
VOA asked the embassies of Thailand and Laos in Cambodia for comment but received no replies. So Sophort, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Phan Rim, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said a two-phase environmental impact study was completed — the first part conducted by the ministry and the second by a water transportation consultant.
“According to the details of the study, the project will not cause any negative impacts on water flow, environment, ecology or saltwater intrusion in the country nor cause any transboundary impacts to neighboring countries,” he told VOA Khmer on Telegram.
Phan Rim added the waterway “will help balance environmental sustainability” and create additional habitat for fish and other water life. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2024, he said.
Kandal Provincial Governor Kong Sophorn told VOA Khmer on Monday that the project is still in the evaluation stage. The governors of Kep, Kampot and Takeo provinces did not respond to requests for comment on the canal that will traverse their jurisdictions.
Heng Kimhong, head of research and advocacy at the Cambodian Youth Network, told VOA Khmer that Cambodia should provide a transparent impact study to Vietnam and other regional stakeholders.
"Cambodia needs to reassure that there is a high possibility of preventing the flow of seawater into the freshwater tributaries in order to ensure that the freshwater ecology is not affected,” he said.
Sun Narin contributed to this report.