Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cambodian Cardamom Mountain Wilderness to Be Dammed

Dam construction must not damn opportunity for protection of one of Asia's last intact, fully functional natural ecosystems

By Rainforest Portal, a project of Ecological Internet - May 27, 2008

Caption: Indochinese tigers and dams do not mix (link)

The Cardamom Mountains in Southwest Cambodia -- one of the world’s priceless ecological treasures -- contain the region's last true wilderness with untouched rivers cascading to the Gulf of Thailand. This is one of Asia's last unbroken, large primary forest expanses with wild waterways linking mountain-top and ocean, containing still intact extensive tracts of lowland evergreen forest, and holding over 40 globally threatened species. The mountain range is home to fourteen endangered and threatened mammal species including Asian elephants, Indochinese tigers, and Malayan sun bears. If the Cambodian government were interested, the Cardamoms would be an easy contender for World Heritage Site designation.

The Cambodian government is preparing to dam and flood the Cardamom Mountains' riverways with a dubious hydroelectric scheme. To meet Cambodia’s escalating power demand, the government seems intent on moving forward with a centralized grid system fueled by hydropower. The government has hastily engaged Chinese companies to carry out dam feasibility research across the landscape. An estimated 15 sites are now being assessed and two are already under construction. There is almost no public information on the projects' financing.

The proposed Stung Cheay Areng Dam is of particular concern. The proposed Areng River dam is located in a densely populated area close to the Central Cardamom Protected Forest. The Areng River is unique, situated in a wide agriculturally rich flat valley and meanders slowly though fertile floodplain and oxbow lakes. Its reservoir would flood nine villages with a combined population of 1,500 mainly indigenous people and would extend into protected forests, inundating the habitat for 31 endangered fauna species, including the world’s most important breeding site for the endangered Siamese Crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) and Cambodia's most important Asian elephant site. Downstream impacts will include loss of rice paddies and destruction of productive swamp forest fishery.

The government is being secretive about the project, saying it will base any decision to proceed on an environmental impact assessment. Yet the assessment is being carried out by people with no experience, who are employed by the government, and will almost certainly be rubber-stamped by government officials. Experience in neighboring countries and globally has shown large hydropower projects incur significant environmental and social costs that undermine sustainable development. There are many better-suited dam sites in the Cardamom landscape than the Areng River.

Cambodia is a poor nation, so sensible hydro-electricity projects may be justified. Yet Cambodia’s free-flowing rivers and abundant natural resources are invaluable irreplacable assets, the health of which is vital to the well-being of Cambodia’s rural population. Poorly conceived hydropower development could irreparably damage these resources and undermine Cambodia’s sustainable development. Prime Minister Hun Sen's government should demonstrate wise leadership and fully protect the Cardamom Mountains.

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