KOH KONG - Villagers in the coastal province of Koh Kong say they are being kept in the dark on a hydroelectric dam planned to be built by a Chinese company in the remote Areng River valley.
Villagers here say they are worried that if the dam is indeed built, it will cause major harm to their livelihoods.
Cambodia has turned to the Chinese for a number of hydropower dams across the country. Supporters say they are needed to power the country’s growth and development, but opponents say they are not worth the environmental costs.
Along the Areng River, in Thmor Bang district, villagers say they are worried.
“So where am I going to move to?” asked Chhorng Dorn, a 71-year-old farmer who lives near the planned site of the dam. “What about my plantations, like coconut trees and other things I’ve been trying to plant so far? I’m already at this age, so I’m very concerned.”
Impact studies say the 108-megawatt dam, if built, would force about 1,500 villagers from their homes. Its reservoir would flood about 10,00 hectares of forested land, half of it within a protected forest of the Cardamom Mountains—a rich reserve of biodiversity.
Villagers here farm and forage in the forest. They also fish the river. A dam would harm the downstream habitats for wild fish that are essential for people living here, according to the environmental advocacy group International Rivers. The reservoir would threaten some 30 species, including the rare Siamese crocodile and dragonfish, the group says.
Nhem Sokhun, a school principal in Thmor Bang, said villagers have not been given much information about the dam.
“If the people know that information only when the dam construction has begun, then we will lose trust,” he said. “We would like to be informed in advance of compensation, either by the government or the Chinese company.”
He is not against the dam if its benefits are fairly distributed, he said.
“I believe that the benefit from this hydroelectric company is huge and the people can find some jobs, but I wonder whether the benefits can appropriately go to the people or not,” he said.
Plans for the hydrodam have been in the works since 2007, but the first Chinese company tasked with the $300-million project pulled out, deeming it infeasible. The China Guodian Corporation has since taken over the project. Officials there could not be reached for comment.
Critics want the project canceled, due to its negative environmental impacts, as well as the potential for illegal logging of luxury timber that could occur under the guise of construction. Local authorities say no such logging is taking place.
In Kongchit, the provincial coordinator for the rights group Licadho, said the dam is not necessary, at least for now.
“In this province, there are several ongoing dam constructions,” he said. “These hydroelectric dams can produce sufficient electricity for the whole country, and even for sale abroad.”
Locally, little is known about the progress of this particular project. District and provincial officials said they were not aware of detailed construction plans—but they confirmed the government has approved the project.
Kim Che, chief of Prolay commune, one of two communes that would be inundated by the dam’s reservoir, said he doubts it will ever be built.
“From 2007 until now, I have heard only of studies being conducted for the dam project, but I’ve seen nothing come up,” he said. “So I don’t think the dam is to be built.” He said his fellow villagers shouldn’t worry, either.
“If their homes and farmland are to be flooded,” he said, “mine will be too.”