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Web links 14.07.2020 18:20
Study leaks China-Backed Dam in Cambodia Would Destroy Mekong on Vietnam side VC keeps it secret from people
17.05.2018 06:25

Leaked report warns Cambodia's biggest dam could 'literally kill' Mekong riverhile VN government shut up
Government-commissioned report says proposed site at Sambor reach is the ‘worst possible place’ for hydropower due to impact o­n wildlife

Study Says China-Backed Dam Would Destroy Mekong

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 1996, file photo, villagers ride a dugout up the Mekong River near Sambor, Cambodia where a major dam has been proposed. A study says a Chinese-backed plan for Cambodia to build the Mekong River's biggest dam would destroy fisheries that feed millions and worsen tensions with Vietnam, the downstream country with most to lose from dams o­n the waterway. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

BANGKOK — A Chinese-backed plan for Cambodia to build the Mekong River's biggest dam would destroy fisheries that feed millions and worsen tensions with Vietnam, the downstream country with most to lose from dams o­n the waterway, according to a three-year study commissioned by the Cambodian government.

The report, posted this month o­n the website of the U.S.-based organization that conducted the study, said the Sambor dam would "generate large power benefits to Cambodia, but at the probable cost of the destruction of the Mekong fishery, and the certain enmity of Vietnam."

It said the dam designed by China Southern Power Grid Co. would have a 620 square kilometre (239 square mile) reservoir and dwarf the biggest dam currently being built o­n the Mekong, the Xayaburi dam in Laos, which was bitterly opposed by environmentalists for years.

The experts at the Natural Heritage Institute who authored the report, submitted to the Cambodian government late last year, recommended it defer the project while studying "better" alternatives such as using solar power to augment existing hydroelectric dams.

Alternative sites upstream where the Mekong separates into several channels are possible but either financially unfeasible or o­nly marginally less destructive than the site currently envisaged for the 2,600 megawatt dam, the study said. Possible mitigation measures are either unproven or have a poor track record, it said.

The dam would block fish migration from the giant Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia which is crucial for reproduction and replenishing what scientists say is the world's most productive fresh-water fishery. It would also prevent riverbed sediment that fertilizes the Mekong Delta rice bowl from moving down river, a particular problem for Vietnam where delta farmlands are being destroyed by saltwater incursion from the sea.

"The dam and the reservoir would create a barrier that would be devastating for the migratory fish stocks," the study said.

It also warned that a population of about 80 critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins would likely be wiped out because the deep river pools they use as a dry season refuge would become filled with sediment blocked by the dam.

Cambodia's government, closely allied with China, its northern neighbour, and the recipient of substantial Chinese aid and investment, has not publicly commented o­n the report.

Seven dams that China built o­n the Mekong headwaters in its territory are already a headache for Southeast Asian countries, reducing the amount of sediment floating downstream by as much as half, according to researchers.

The Chinese dams were blamed for exacerbating a Southeast Asian drought in 2016, but countries in the region are pressing ahead with plans for Chinese companies to build a slew of other Mekong dams to meet growing demand for energy. Laos, o­ne of the poorest countries in Asia, is pinning development hopes o­n becoming a source of power for its neighbours.


Natural Heritage Institute report:

Government-commissioned report says proposed site at Sambor reach is the ‘worst possible place’ for hydropower due to impact o­n wildlife

Floating Vietnamese houseboats o­n the Mekong River off Koh Trong Island near Kratie, Cambodia
 The report warns that the proposed dam in Kratie would devastate fisheries that many communities rely o­n. Photograph: Yvette Cardozo/Alamy

A Chinese-backed plan to build Cambodia’s biggest dam could “literally kill” the Mekong river, according to a confidential assessment seen by the Guardian which says that the proposed site at Sambor is the “worst possible place” for hydropower.

The report, which was commissioned by the government in Phnom Penh, has been kept secret since it was submitted last year, prompting concerns that ministers are inclined to push ahead regardless of the dire impact it predicts o­n river dolphins and o­ne of the world’s largest migrations of freshwater fish.

The proposed hydropower plant would require a 33km-wide concrete barrier across the river at Sambor, Kratie province. This quiet rural district is best known as a place for watching Irrawaddy dolphins, whose critically low numbers have just shown their first increase in 20 years.

To examine the environmental impact of the dam and the 82km-long reservoir that would form behind it, the Cambodian government commissioned the National Heritage Institute, a US-based research and consultancy firm, to undertake a three-year study in 2014.

But it has refused to make public the results of the Sambor Hydropower Dam Alternatives Assessment, despite numerous appeals from civil society organisations. A copy has now been leaked to the Guardian.

In its key findings the report notes: “The impact o­n fisheries would be devastating as it would block fish migration from the Tonle Sap (Cambodia’s Great Lake), a vital tributary to the Mekong and the spawning grounds upstream.”

< iframe class="scribd_iframe_embed" title="Sambor special report" src="" data-auto-height="false" data-aspect-ratio="0.7080062794348508" scrolling="no" id="doc_66497" width="100%" height="600" frameborder="0" style="width: 620px; border-width: 0px; border-style: initial;">< /iframe>

The Mekong is the world’s most productive inland fisher y, sustaining the food security of 60 million people. The Mekong River Commission puts the value of wild-capture fish at $11b n, shared between the four member states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The stakes are very high for a country where 80% of Cambodians count o­n fish as their main source of protein.

It is also a potential game-changer for other species in the Mekong’s ecosystem. Marc Goichot, WWF’s water resources specialist, said: “After 15 years WWF and our Cambodian partners are finally winning the battle to conserve Mekong dolphins with 15 new calves born since 2015. A Sambor dam would ruin all those efforts. Together with the plight of the dolphins, fisheries, livelihoods and nutrition of rural communities would all suffer, as well as precipitating the sinking of the Mekong delta in Vietnam.”

The plan for the dam dates back to a memorandum of understanding signed with China Southern Power Grid in 2006. Widespread opposition prompted the Chinese investor to withdrew from the project in 2008.

The country’s chronic energy shortage, high prices and its 50% import dependency prompted the government to revive the Sambor project in 2016, after Laos had already launched two controversial dams upstream - the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dams.

< iframe height="667" src="" style="width: 620px; border-width: initial; border-style: none;">< /iframe>

In the executive summary, the report declares “a dam at this site could literally kill the river, unless sited, designed and operated sustainably. The Sambor reach is the worst possible place to build a major dam.”

Cambodia’s deputy minister of energy, Ith Praing , said: “It is a very sensitive issue and too early to publish any kind of information o­n Sambor.”

The survey team looked at 10 alternative locations for a Sambor dam site by deploying the world’s most advanced mitigation technology. The project director, Gregory Thomas, said: “Even the most advanced mitigation measures still pose high risks. There is no evidence that any large dam o­n a tropical river has ever been successful in the use of the latest fish mitigation technology.”

In place of a new dam, the study recommends integrating floating solar photovoltaic panels into the already operational Lower Sesan 2 dam , and operating the reservoir as a single integrated hybrid facility. Power capacity would be doubled to more than 800MW. This technique of augmenting existing hydropower facilities with solar photovoltaics plants has been widely developed in China and India.

An aerial view of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam under construction
 An aerial view of the now operational Lower Sesan 2 Dam while it was under construction. Photograph: Sion Ang/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

According to the report, “solar energy is the o­nly option with a positive net economic benefit after all costs and benefits are taken into account, and the cost of solar would be cheaper than the best possible mitigated dam”.

Cambodia’s Energy Ministry has so far taken o­nly small steps in the direction of solar energy, and has given a tepid response to the 400MW solar proposal, which suggests it is still batting for a mitigated dam.

Praing said no decision would be taken until after July’s general election. If the dam is approved, the leading candidate to build it is China’s Hydrolancang International Energy Company.

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine, Sweden

If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps fund it, our future would be much more secure. For as little as CA$1, you can support the Guardian – and it o­nly takes a minute. Thank you.

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