A boatman on the Mekong River, which is already experiencing major effects from dams built in China. The Xayaburi Dam on the Laotian part of the river could have devastating consequences for those who make their livings along the Mekong.
Credit: Samantha Page

Four workers have gone missing after the collapse of an in-progress hydropower dam in Western Cambodia, apparently due to a leak in the structure.

The Associated Press reports that the Saturday collapse occurred at the Stung Atay Hydroelectric Project, a $255-million dollar dam on the Atay river, funded by the Chinese state-owned China Datang Corporation.

A search is underway for the workers, reports the Herald Sun Australia, and construction work has been halted for the time being.

Four workers were seriously injured, beside the four that have gone missing in the incident. An eyewitness, according to AP, reported that all the water formerly in the reservoir has been drained—likely a major set-back for the project.

"A full investigation into the dam's collapse should be carried out, as well as examination of whether the levels of dam safety expenditures were sufficient or not," said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers, to GlobalPost.

"The death of any construction worker is simply unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs," said Trandem, who noted that Cambodian dams are gaining a reputation for being unsafe, with other worker deaths elsewhere in the country in the past two years.

"While dam safety and failure is always a risk when building large dams, the changing climate is also adding a new level of uncertainty that needs to be better considered during the dam planning process," she added.

Read more from GlobalPost: Laos hydro dam upsets Mekong river neighbors

The dam has been in progress since 2008 and was projected to be completed in 2012, according a report from Channel News Asia. The Stung Atay hydropower project made the news recently when endangered Siamese crocodiles, caught downstream of the project, were rescued by wildlife groups and air-lifted to a different, safer location.

Environmentalists claim that the Stung Atay dam, situated in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, has caused habitat destruction, the displacement of local people, and the building of damaging new roads, among other stressors on the environment.

Southeast Asian dams have been the source of considerable international controversy in recent years, spurred by the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong, a massive project that could have dangerous environmental effects downstream.

However, Cambodia is a profoundly power-starved country: the United Nations finds that only 22 percent of Cambodians have regular access to electricity, and the vast majority of that power is used in Phnom Penh, the capital city.

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