Almost every day for the past year about a dozen boats carrying thousands of cubic meters of sand dump their load at Koh Norea, a small tip of land where the Mekong spills into the Bassac river. According to workers at the site, the sand comes from the upper Mekong, part of a vast dredging process to provide sufficient landfill for Cambodia’s latest supersized development project: a massive satellite city just south east of Phnom Penh, totaling 125 hectares.
When the project, developed by Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation, is completed, it will just 400 meters out into the Mekong, according to workers on the site. That intrusion, at a spot where the river is about 1600 meters wide is certain to have an impact on the river, affecting everything from water flow, to water level, to the delicate river ecosystem, according to experts. But a year into the project, neither the government nor developer has yet to release an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
The issue is particularly pressing because Koh Norea is just one of the projects straining the Mekong river. Almost directly across from Koh Norea, at the bucolic Arey Ksat village, lies the site of a 70-hectare planned satellite city. Developed by Khun Sear Import Export company, owned by the well-connected real estate tycoon Khun Sear, the satellite city is currently being developed through an identical land-filling process, narrowing the Mekong even further.
Largescale development projects like Koh Norea legally require EIAs, which investigate the impact on the environment as well as surrounding community. Consultation with citizens and civil society organizations is required, and there should be the opportunity for public participation. But though required to be public, EIAs are still often kept private.
“There is a need for discussion with experts, the public, and local people in the area. We generally never receive government’s report on EIA, and this is a concern, and we hope the relevant ministries are willing to make improvements,” said Ham Oudom, an independent consultant for natural resource governance on Mekong River
According to Oudom, narrowing the Mekong to such a degree will have dangerous knock-on effects. The EIA should identify these challenges and determine what mitigation could be put in place.
“The risk of flooding would also increase on the lower Mekong, due to the high pressure water flow” he said. “It could also affect water supply in a context where the world is experiencing climate change as well.”
Such landfill will also impact fish migration, according to Om Savath, executive director at Fisheries Action Coalition Team.
“We already see the water level has been dropping for the last few years and the Mekong river water flow has changed irregularly — which is the grave concern as the river is being filled,” he said.
This month, the Mekong River Commission raised alarm over declining river water levels causing a negative impact on river transport, fish migration, agriculture irrigation, and river weed collection.
The stretch of the Mekong near Phnom Penh is critical for fish that migrate during breeding season from the lower Mekong up to the Tonle Sap lake. These fish are important for feeding tens of millions of people, but changes to the river impede their migration pathways.
“River bank landslides naturally change the river, but when it is filled up by humans, that damages the river resources while making the water level drop,” he said.
Developed by OCIC, which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se, the $2.5 billion satellite city will be able to house 50,000 residents and will have bridges linking it to both Koh Pich and National Road 1.
Touch Samnang, deputy general director of OCIC said that the company and the government’s ministries had done an EIA, but referred CamboJa to speak with “relevant authorities” to see a copy.
Environment Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra confirmed the EIA had been approved but declined to share it.
“The EIA has already passed an inter-ministerial meeting after studying in detail the environmental and social impacts, meeting with local people, and developing solutions to minimize environmental and social impacts,” he said.
But he said it wasn’t publicly available and declined to say when it would be.
“It does not matter, because the expansion of the bank has been approved by the study phase,” he said, explaining that the first phase of the EIA found that such expansion wouldn’t have a problematic impact.
He also disputed the warnings of the environmental experts, saying: “We have measures in place to avoid serious impacts on the environment, especially water flow.”
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia,said the EIA shouldn’t be considered a sensitive issue and must be made public.
“It should not be hidden. When the government is trying to hide the issue, it will raise curiosity among public. But the public could support the project if the information is widely released,” he said.
Pisey pointed out that such a huge sand filling the government would have included participation from independent experts to appropriately analyze the impacts.
“The people will know this and it is the necessary for the government and company to share information in order to gain the trust of the public,” he said.
In January, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that filling some lakes in Phnom Penh is necessary to create land for developments. But has also said he is against the unrelated practice of damming rivers or blocking waterways.
In the same speech, Hun Sen said the capital today has to reach past the previous city limits, and will expand in the coming years from 300sq km to over 700sq km.
Soeung Saran, executive director of STT said there hasn’t been sufficient research into the impact of filling waterways. While development offers positives and negatives, he said, any environmental and socio-economic impacts need to be studied in detail and the EIA reports should be available for public.
“One can see the extent of the impact, how much river space is left to maintain natural water flow and fish circulation,” he said.