After Four Years, Study of Potential Mekong Dam Nearly Finished

The U.S. group studying the potential of what would be Cambodia’s first hydropower dam on the main stream of the Mekong River says its analysis could be finished by the end of the month, clearing the way for more detailed studies backed by business mogul Kith Meng.

The Mines and Energy Ministry hired the San Francisco-based Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) in 2013 to study a series of possible designs for the proposed Sambor dam in Kratie province, which would also be Cambodia’s largest dam by far, with a capacity of up to 2,600 megawatts.

Kith Meng, right, poses with Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem in front of Lower Sesan II dam last month in Stung Treng province, in a photograph posted to Facebook by one of Mr. Meng’s employees.

The government is considering building more than a dozen new dams across the country in a bid to bring down some of the highest energy prices in the region, considered a major brake on foreign investment in Cambodia. But environmental groups warn that the dams, and the Sambor especially, could devastate critical fish stocks, while local communities fear forced evictions.

This week, NHI CEO Gregory Thomas said the group’s study of a “no dam” option, for which it was also contracted, would be done by the end of the year. But he said its analysis of pushing ahead with the dam should be in the government’s hands by March 31 or soon after.

Mr. Thomas said NHI has considered 11 to 12 alternatives for the Sambor, but only three or four would be reviewed in detail in the final report.

“These assessments are conceptual or pre-feasibility level but with quite substantial detail. This report is on siting, design and operations tradeoffs between power generation and fishery impacts/sediment-nutrient flows/social impacts,” he said by email.

“Any proponent of an actual project would need to conduct more detailed feasibility and environmental impact studies to qualify for consideration of a concession agreement” from the government, he added.

The Cambodia Daily reported last month that Mr. Meng, chairman of the sprawling Royal Group and believed to be one of the wealthiest men in Cambodia, was backing the Sambor and two other proposed hydropower dams: the 900-MW Stung Treng and 190-MW Lower Sekong, both in Stung Treng province.

A letter from the Council of Ministers dated October 31 gives the Mines and Energy Ministry permission to sign a memorandum of understanding with Royal Group to carry out studies of all three dams before the government decides whether to approve investment.

Last month, ministry spokesman Victor Jona said the ministry would wait to sign the memorandum until NHI finished its own study.

Mr. Jona did not reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.

An environmental assessment commissioned by the Mekong River Commission in 2010 concluded that the cumulative impact of the numerous dams planned or underway along the Mekong in Cambodia and beyond, including the Sambor, would be severe. The same study predicted the Sambor could displace as many as 20,000 people.

Hundreds of families have already been displaced by the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng province, which Royal Group and China’s Hydrolancang International Energy are currently building. Many of the families have complained of inadequate compensation. In March last year, remaining families rejected compensation packages of 5 hectares of farmland, 1,000 square meters of residential land and $6,000, according to Sesan district’s Srekor commune chief Siek Mekong.

One study predicted that the dam, which sits at the confluence of two Mekong tributaries, could cause a 9.3 percent drop in fish stocks across the basin.

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