Chinese Dams Challenge Western Development Monopoly

A steady rise of new dams in Cambodia is becoming a platform for the country's prime minister to showcase where the Southeast Asian kingdom's ties with China - a late arrival among Cambodia's foreign aid and development partners - is headed.

"The hydropower dam is just one of the numerous achievements under the cooperation between Cambodia and China," Premier Hun Sen said in December at a ceremony in a remote South-western province of the country where the 338 megawatt Russei Chrum Krom hydropower dam is being built.

This 500-million-U.S.-dollar dam - being built by the Huadian Corp., one of China's biggest state-owned power companies - is the largest of five Chinese dams under construction in energy-poor Cambodia, where only a fifth of the population of nearly 14.5 million have access to electricity.

Chinese companies are already carrying out feasibility studies for four more dams to be built, say environmentalists and grassroots activists worried about what such future hydropower projects portend.

"China plays a very important role in investment and development in Cambodia. But it should take account of the importance of EIAs [environmental impact assessments] and SIAs [social impact assessments]," Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh, where his grassroots network for local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is based. "At times the EIA process is not open to the public and there is little time to comment," Ath told IPS.

Global environmental lobbies, such as the U.S.-based International Rivers (IR), confirmed to IPS that a full EIA for the Kamchay Dam has still not been completed four years after construction began. "Within the EIA process, the Chinese companies have not pursued best practices," says Ame Trandem, a Southeast Asia campaigner for IR. "Public participation is limited or there is no participation. And the developer has not looked at alternatives."

The Kamchay Dam is located "within Bokor National Park and will flood two thousand hectares of protected forest," notes IR in a study, titled 'Cambodia's hydropower development and China's involvement'.

But Hun Sen leaves little room for such criticism levelled by environmentalists toward China. "Is there any development that happens without an impact on the environment and natural resources? Please give us a proper answer," the region's longest-serving leader said in a broadside fired at green groups during the December ceremony for the Russei Chrum Krom Dam.

For their part, some Chinese funders of development projects in Cambodia have begun to engage with local activists - worried at the price a country still recovering from two decades of civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime has to pay now that China's footprint is expanding.

"I told a delegation of Chinese at a meeting last month that there were few EIA being done for Chinese projects," Meas Nee, a Cambodian social development researcher, told IPS in a telephone interview. "And even when done and it looks good on paper, there are flaws because they have not been done properly."

"The prime minister always praises Chinese support and the government prefers economic assistance from China because it comes with no conditions, unlike aid from the western donors," Nee says.

In fact, Hun Sen's ability to play his newfound economic support from China against the country's long-standing development partners from the west has highlighted their contrasting aid and development practices.

Till 2006, when China stepped in to help Cambodia, the aid and development agenda had been dominated by the countries that were part of a pro-free market, pro-western Washington Consensus. They entered a war-ravaged country after the 1991 peace accord to help rebuild the country.

In mid-2010, western donors assured Cambodia 1.1 billion U.S. dollars in aid - up from the previous year's 950 million dollars.

Such largess has come despite the Cambodian government falling short of standards the western governments were pushing for - ranging from "good governance", better laws and reducing corruption to strengthening fundamental rights.

But China - which has gone from having only 45 million U.S. dollars in investments in Cambodia in 2003 to signing 14 deals worth 850 million dollars in Dec. 2009 - challenged the western donors' monopoly in the country by "dealing directly with the political decision makers only," says Shalmali Guttal, senior researcher at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok- based regional think tank.

China is enjoy an edge over the west through its 'no-policy-conditions' approach, said Guttal, noting also that China did not follow the western donors route of pushing for Cambodian NGOs to monitor the aid process.

[Source: By Marwaan Macan-Markar, Bangkok, 10Jan11]

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