Natural Resources Governance: a flawed process to adequate policies

The original op-ed was published on Phnom Penh Post in English on 14 August 2022 in Khmer on 15 August 2022

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) is to be congratulated on its recent stance to better protect and conserve natural resources in infrastructure projects whilst addressing the complex challenges of climate change and the development needs of a youthful and aspirational Cambodian population. A recent example is Samdech Hun Sen’s call to ASEAN member states to support an ASEAN ‘Green Deal’ to gradually transition to competitive economies that are sustainable, resilient and resource efficient.

Equally significant commitments are those made in 2020 for a ten-year moratorium on the development of mainstream hydropower on the Mekong made by the RGC and reinforced by the Minister of Environment (MoE) during the COP26. Concurrently, Cambodia maintains partnership in the 1995 Mekong Agreement ensuring responsible and accountable shared water management between the four countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam); and its commitment to the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar) signed in 1999. These commitments are underpinned by national regulations to ensure assessment of impacts on the environment and people’s livelihoods.

Considering these commitments and the Cambodia Power Development Plan makes no reference to a proposed Stung Treng dam, it is puzzling to discover that a social and environmental impact assessment (SEIA) has been undertaken between January -June 2022 that is assumed to be part of the feasibility stage formally announced by the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) (no. 1750, dated 17/06/2022). Oxfam conducted a community case study to talk with concerned stakeholders to establish how due process and commitments were being followed in Stung Treng. Oxfam interviewed 24 key informants (14 female) from Kham Phann, Koah Khan Din, Koah Snaeng and Themey village (upstream and downstream respectively to the preferred location). Six representatives from conservation and livelihood support organizations in the area were interviewed.

The proposed Stung Treng dam is one of eleven mainstream dams planned in the Lower Mekong and the first for Cambodia, with a proposed installed capacity of 1,400 megawatts, the site lies in the middle stretch of the Mekong in Ramsar site 999. As a mainstream dam, the RGC is required to notify the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to trigger the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNCPA) that invites member countries to appraise the proposed project including the Environmental Impact Assessment. Also, as a designated Ramsar site, Cambodia is required to notify and consult with the Convention secretariat to ensure wetlands protection and conservation.

Oxfam's community case study confirmed that a public consultation was organized by the developers and Provincial authorities in Stung Treng Provincial Hall on January 27th, 2022. Invitees were officials from departments of environment, agriculture, rural development, district, commune, and village authorities. Oxfam was told there was one representative from the community located alongside the preferred site attended, but no other local community members were present. Interviews with stakeholders revealed limited or no understanding of the project, an over reliance on ‘word of mouth’ rather than making clear plans accessible (language). We heard that officials reassured communities they would ‘not be affected’ which is difficult to independently assess in the absence of plans and may ignore indirect impacts. The consulting company was reported to be vague in explaining the purpose of gathering baseline data.

This process falls short of international standards and MoE’s own Guidance 2020 that public participation is to provide detailed project information and receive concerns, critiques, feedback, supporting comments and detailed information related to existing environmental data. Of concern is that women appeared to have been excluded or knew little about the project. This is significant as women are key users with livelihoods dependent on water. Women can be excellent informants to influence project design yet are often ignored by developers and officials as being ‘’unable to understand’’ the proposal.

Due to the lack of transparency, it is not clear if this constitutes the full consultation process and whether the project is at the screening, scoping or ‘more information’’ stage. The consultations appear poorly conceived, fails to meet any national or international commitments and needs to be urgently revised so stakeholders including the developers can be informed and held accountable.

With regards to its other commitments, notification to the MRC and the Ramsar Convention Secretariat will be required and consultation and due diligence between countries coordinated by the MRC is essential. Communities and civil society organisations need to be better informed on the required processes and the potential direct and indirect impacts. This can be achieved through awareness raising and avoiding a polarization of positions. Oxfam urges attention to be given to inclusive consultations that may require specific measures, i.e. women only consultations and identifying how those with disabilities can be consulted.

The impacts of climate change in Cambodia are an everyday occurrence. The importance of wetlands to the vulnerable Mekong eco-system is increasingly apparent; any changes need careful assessment. These obligations and required studies are complex, need resourcing, planning, and time. Evidence from the region is that a failure to follow due process can result in disastrous impacts on communities, failed projects, and long-term litigation when resources can be better spent on developing effective projects.

Oxfam welcomes the Cambodian government’s efforts and urges the Government and developers to be more transparent to clarify the apparent anomalies between the commitment to not construct new mainstream dams and the current feasibility studies in Stung Treng. All stakeholders are urged to follow international and national guidance to promote meaningful consultation. The tools exist but, if ignored, Cambodia risks replicating and increasing the degradation of its natural resources and inheritance as seen in the image above.