According to the affected communities’ perceptions analysed in Section 3
, the Kamchay dam construction has had profound impacts on society-environment relationships in terms of access to natural resources (i.e., water, energy, land and forest). Moreover, this section discusses the shortcomings of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedures and environmental mitigation measures. Table 6
summaries the main aspects of the altered society-environment relationships associated with the construction of the Kamchay dam.
To understand the social and environmental implications of the Kamchay dam from a Political Ecology of the Asian Drivers perspective, it is important not only to analyse how the dam construction has altered society-environment relationships, but also the ways, i.e., channels of interactions, in which more powerful actors can enable and constraint other actors in relation to access to the physical environment [21
]. This analysis can in turn help to identify shortcomings in relation to the governance of large dams’ construction by local authorities and Chinese builders and ways to improve the sustainability of future Chinese dam construction in Cambodia, in ASEAN, particularly along the Mekong River, as well as in other low and middle income countries.
4.4. Environmental Governance: The Role of the EIA Legislation and Lack of Proper Implementation
In terms of environmental governance for dams, one issue worth exploring in detail is the Cambodian Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) legislation that requires to have proper EIA procedures and mitigation plans in place to safeguard the environment. The government authorities that are responsible for dams are the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME), the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM) and the Ministry of Environment (MoE). All BOT projects such as the Kamchay dam have to be approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) [34
]. By Cambodian law, development projects such as dams are required to have an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in place and approved before the dam construction begins. The main legal framework for the EIA is the Sub-decree on EIA passed by MoE in 1999. The EIA has to be approved by several ministries, including those mentioned above. MoE is primarily responsible for organising the conduction of the EIA, reviewing the report and monitoring compliance with environmental legislation [34
As part of the Cambodian EIA legislation, every EIA needs to be approved before the construction starts and consultation with all stakeholders is required. However at the Kamchay dam official procedures for stakeholder engagement were not in place, therefore the consultation process before the dam construction was patchy and ad-hoc with little local participation. A man from Tvi Khang Cheung stated: “we have never been invited to join any meetings, but the village chief informed us”. Another respondent from Bat Kbal Damrei said: “No one informed us. I just heard from other people who live in a Snam Prampir village, and they told the story from one to another”. Many villagers were not invited to consultation processes and became only aware of the dam once construction had started. A man from Ou Touch reported: “Before the construction of the dam, I did not know, but I went to the forest every day, then I saw them constructing the dam”. According to our interviews village chiefs were involved in the consultation process “Before the dam construction, the Chinese Company came to ask and informed us that they will construct the dam” (village chief in Ou Touch). However, village chiefs did not participate actively in the consultation process: “They invited me to attend a consultation at their Hydropower Company. However, we just went to listen to them”; and “during consultation the company already told us that people should find alternative jobs instead of collecting bamboo” (village chief in Ou Touch).
In addition, the Environmental Management Plan (EMP), which aims to implement mitigation measures to reduce the negative effects of the dam, was not in place until the late stages of the dam construction. It is also being reported that Sinohydro refuses to implement any mitigation measures, as confirmed by our interviews and other reports (NGO Forum, 2013). Sinohydro is said to have set aside a so-far untouched budget of US$5 million for implementing mitigating measures, such as replanting 2000 ha of forest [35
], however even high-ranking officials at the provincial Department for the Environment and the EIA office are criticising Sinohydro for its inaction as confirmed by our interviews.
The communication and decision-making process between Sinohydro and the Cambodian authorities seems rather opaque and hierarchical. The typical way of communicating is either between Sinohydro and MIME in Phnom Penh or between Sinohydro and the Kampot Provincial Governor. MIME in Phnom Penh then communicates with the Provincial Department of Mines and Energy in Kampot, whereas the communication between the Provincial Governor and the provincial authorities is less clear. The communication between Sinohydro and MoE and the provincial Department of Environment seems patchy and ad-hoc at best as there seems to be no clear routine for communication between the two organisations, despite both are based in Kampot.
The communication and decision-making process between the local population and Sinohydro is even more complicated. As mentioned before, those most affected by the dam were barely involved in pre-construction consultation processes. The local villagers have complained in various forms (petitions, mass demonstrations, filing individual complaints) against Sinohydro. Men from Tvi Khang Cheung village pointed out, “there were many complaints about the banning [of access to the bamboo forests affected by the dam]
”, and other villagers reported how
“up to 300 people protested on one occasion at being unable to access the bamboo areas
”. Some were dissatisfied with the low water levels at Tuek Chhu resort and would like the dam operators to release more water from the reservoir, and others complained about not having access to electricity (see Section 3.2
for details on water and energy access by local communities). Nevertheless they had to follow a strict hierarchy addressing first the village chief, then the commune authority, then the district authority, then the provincial authority and from there on the complaints are said to be taken to the appropriate ministries in Phnom Penh (mainly MIME) who then establishes a communication with Sinohydro. This is despite Sinohydro’s offices being based at the dam site, in very close proximity to the affected villages. In the future, the complaint process may be even less advantageous for the local population as it was recently reported, in relation to the Chinese-built Lower Sesan 2 dam, that Cambodia’s ministers propose to handle complaints against Chinese dam-builders only in courts. However, poor rural villagers whose livelihoods have been adversely affected and who may be forced to resettle do not have the financial, human and administrative capacity to file a formal complaint at court level [30
Moreover, according to the results of the Nvivo analysis and the selected quotes from villagers, a lack of access to natural resources such as forests, land and water, and hence a decline in people’s traditional livelihoods has led to a monetisation of their lives, often without providing alternative options such as local employment and training. Bamboo collectors, fruit vendors and fishers have lost/declined livelihoods due to the dam, yet these groups of people were not considered for compensation payments. Some of the villagers, namely durian growers and other plantations growers, are positively affected by the dam. Some of them received compensation by Sinohydro for land that was lost due to construction of the dam (e.g., land that was used for building roads). Rather than compensating for the lost land, Sinohydro compensated the affected families for the lost trees. The villagers reported that a lost banana tree was compensated at US$10, a mango tree at US$30, a durian tree at US$100–US$500 depending on size and age. The durian growing families thought this was a fair compensation payment. Other groups of people who are directly but less affected by the dam are small holder farmers who own land, such as rice fields, that have been acquired by Sinohydro to build construction infrastructure (mainly roads) and people who live directly under the power lines (10 families). Compensation was paid to villagers who lost their rice fields, however only at US$3 per square meter, which the villagers considered too low, as discussed above. No resettlement has taken place for those who live under the power lines and it is not clear yet how and when they will be compensated and relocated.
The analysis has showed how the society-environment relationship, which is central to the political ecology analysis, has changed since the dam construction as rural livelihoods at the dam site are closely linked to access to natural resources, which is now more limited. The analysis also highlights the role of China as a rising power, by highlighting the role Sinohydro plays for controlling the flow of the river, compensation payments and access to natural resources.