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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Watchdog Renews Call for Oil Transparency

The US oil giant Chevron and the Cambodian government need to improve transparency in the management of oil revenue, a Cambodian watchdog said Monday.

“What we want to know is how this revenue from natural resources is being managed, because it is a new sector,” Mam Sambath, chairman of Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, told “Hello VOA.” “We want to see this revenue being managed transparently and accountably so that Cambodian people and their future generations benefit equally.”

Mam Sambath, who attended Chevron’s annual meeting last week in Houston, Texas, to advocate for a payment disclosure policy, said greater transparency will work in the company’s interest.

“The disclosure will instead promote a good image of Chevron in a country it operates,” he said. “And it will also attract other highly responsible companies to follow suit and invest in that particular country.”

Cambodia insists it has been transparent in managing state revenue.

“We don’t have a problem [if a company makes their payment public],” Hang Chuon Naron, secretary-general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, told VOA Khmer. “The prime minister has authorized us to do that, and we have been doing that all along.”

However, a caller from Banteay Meanchey province expressed skepticism in the government’s transparency efforts. Villagers are seldom fully informed of gold mining operations in the province, the caller, who gave his name as Ny, said.

Transparency advocates say Cambodia would do well to become a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI.

“On natural resources, the international community must push the government to be a member of EITI to ensure effectiveness in management of revenues and expenditure from mineral resources,” said Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. “Sooner or later we will extract oil and gold, and revenue from this sector is gigantic. If we manage it properly we will be rich.”

Yim Sovann called for openness for input from the public, lawmakers and the international community for the drafting of a management law for natural resources currently underway.

Mam Sambath agrees.

“I strongly urge the government to consider becoming a member of EITI, so that we can better manage revenue from natural resources and help better manage our economy,” Mam Sambath said.
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In Donor Meeting, Hun Sen Vows Deeper Reforms

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday moved to assure international representatives and aid agencies he was committed to deepening government reforms and fighting corruption, as an annual donor meeting got underway.

Speaking at the opening of the Cambodian Development Cooperation Forum, where donors are expected to pledge more than $1 billion in aid to Cambodia, Hun Sen said the government had made the “utmost efforts to firmly and deeply implement various reform programs and consider them as life or death issues.”

The government will present a $6.2 billion development plan to donors this week, part of an updated five-year strategy for continued reform and poverty alleviation. More than 100 participants from donor countries and international aid groups such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund joined senior government ministers for two days of talks.

“The Royal Government considers the fight against corruption as a top priority during its fourth mandate,” Hun Sen said in a speech that lasted more than an hour. “We have a strong will for implementing these reforms.”

Speaking on behalf of the donors, Annette Dixon, the World Bank’s country director, said meetings would center around “key reforms, which the government is undertaking, particularly in decentralization, public financial management and reforms of the civil service.”

“Further strengthening transparency and accountability in the management of Cambodia’s public finances and natural resources will be fundamental for ensuring more sustainable and inclusive growth,” Dixon said, adding that the government had made important achievements in passing an anti-corruption law and updated penal code.

Critics of the anti-corruption law have said it lacks the teeth to root out the country’s endemic corruption.
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Researchers offer solutions to poisonous well-water crisis in southern Asia

Over 100 million people in rural southern Asia are exposed every day to unsafe levels of arsenic from the well-water they drink. It is more than doubles their risks for cancer, causes cardiovascular disease, and inhibits the mental development of children, among other serious effects.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has referred to the situation in Bangladesh, where an estimated 60 million people are affected, as 'the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.'

In the May 28 issue of the journal Science, researchers from Stanford University, the University of Delaware, and Columbia University review what scientists understand about this groundwater contamination crisis and offer solutions for the region, which spans Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

Holly Michael, assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware, is a co-author of the article, with Scott Fendorf from Stanford and Alexander van Geen from Columbia University. Fendorf received his doctorate from UD in 1992 and is now chair of environmental and Earth system science at Stanford.

Michael earned her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined the UD faculty in 2008. She travelled to Bangladesh to study the groundwater contamination problem firsthand during her postdoctoral training with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the Earth's crust. Tasteless, odourless, and colourless in solution, the element is a known carcinogen and can be detected in water only through testing.

The source of South Asia's arsenic contamination is the Himalaya Mountains. Minerals from rocks, eroding coal seams, and sediments contain arsenic and are carried into the major rivers that flow out of the mountains, including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irawaddy, Meghna, Mekong, and Red rivers. The flat, low-lying floodplains of these major rivers are the areas affected by groundwater contamination.

A logical solution is to dig deeper wells to reach uncontaminated aquifers for supplying safe drinking water. However, farmers also want access to this water to irrigate their rice paddies. And that's a problem, according to Michael's research.

In 2008, Michael showed through numerical modelling of groundwater flow in the Bengal Basin that an uncontaminated domestic well more than 500 feet (150 metres) could remain arsenic-free for at least a thousand years. However, she projected an entirely different scenario for deep irrigation wells, which use mechanised pumps instead of hand pumps to bring groundwater to the surface. The high volumes of water drawn by these irrigation systems induced a much faster downward migration of arsenic-contaminated surface water into the deep aquifer.

'To protect drinking water from arsenic contamination, we recommend that deeper wells only be used by individual households for drinking water and not for crop irrigation,' Michael says.

In addition to preserving deep wells specifically for drinking water, she and her co-authors also recommend these measures:

- Reinvigorating well-testing campaigns by governments and international organisations.

- Better use of existing geological data and the compilation of test results to target zones that are low in arsenic for the installation of community wells.

- The re-testing of tens of thousands of deep wells, particularly those that have been used for both domestic and farming purposes.

- The choice of mitigation option can be situation-dependent: filters or other alternatives may be the best choice in some areas.

'Obviously, arsenic-contaminated drinking water is a huge problem from a human health perspective,' Michael says. 'We've shown that there are some viable options in South Asia, but there is much more that we need to understand.'

Currently, Michael is working to model arsenic transport, how it may move in the future in the aquifer system in Bangladesh. She also is working with the World Bank on a study of groundwater sustainability in Bangladesh related to water supply and vulnerability of coastal groundwater to sea-level rise.

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Cambodia upholds opposition MP defamation case

Mu Sochour's Parliamentary immunity was lifted so she could face charges

Cambodia's highest court has upheld a ruling that a leading opposition figure defamed the prime minister.

Prime Minister Hun Sen had sued Mu Sochua for defamation after she accused him of making derogatory remarks about her.

The former women's minister has refused to pay the $4,000 (£2,725) fine and says she is willing to go to jail.

Mu Sochua, the current MP for Kampot, called the ruling "a travesty of justice".

She had no defence counsel in court as her lawyer quit the case and joined the governing party after Cambodia's bar council accused him of malpractice.

The courts dismissed her complaint and the national assembly voted to lift her parliamentary immunity from prosecution so the prime minister's case could go ahead.

The ruling came as Cambodia's international donors met government officials to discuss their aid pledges for the coming year.

Local human rights groups have described freedom of expression in Cambodia as in a "perilous state".

A coalition of pressure groups has asked donors to link their payments to Cambodia's progress on human rights issues.

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Foreign donors concerned about accountability in Cambodia

Phnom Penh - Cambodia's donor conference opened Wednesday with warnings that access to land, improved transparency, and accountability for use of natural resources will be essential for the country's development goals.

World Bank country head Annette Dixon noted that 4 million Cambodians - about 30 per cent of the population - live in poverty while many more 'live precariously near poverty.'

'Life continues to be extremely challenging for the majority of Cambodian rural families, who remain vulnerable to shocks,' she said.

Dixon applauded reforms in managing public finances, and said the government had strengthened social protections for the poor.

She said donors remained 'strongly committed' to development efforts help the poor, despite global financial woes, 'which in turn heightens the need to improve aid effectiveness and accountability for results.'

Cambodian officials, non-governmental groups and foreign donors are meeting for two days to discuss the country's most pressing issues. On Thursday, donors will announce how much money they will give to help the government for it development goals.

In 2009, donors provided 951 million dollars, around half the government's budget. The finance ministry said it expected pledges of more than 1 billion dollars this year.

Prime Minister Hun Sen told the conference that good governance was 'the most important prerequisite for a sustainable and equitable economic development and social justice.'

'In the context of this vision, the Royal Government considers the fight against corruption as a top priority,' he said, citing a new anti-corruption law, and an ongoing crackdown on illegal logging and fisheries, as evidence of the government's commitment.

Hun Sen said agriculture was the top development priority for the predominantly rural population, saying it could bolster economic growth and ensure food security.

He also pledged to pay more attention to granting land concessions to the poor. Land concessions are a highly contentious subject, with large investors in possession of more than a million hectares.

Non-governmental organizations said improvements in some health indicators showed similar gains could be made in governance, land use and natural resources. They called for reform of the judiciary, which is seen as corrupt and inefficient.

On Tuesday, the Britain-based organization Global Witness, called on donors to pressure the government to deliver meaningful reforms in the face of 'gross mismanagement' of its natural resources.

Global Witness is not participating in the conference.
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SKorea to fund Angkor road

PHNOM PENH (Cambodia) - South Korea has provided US$9.2 million (S$12.9 million) to Cambodia to build a new road that will circle the famed Angkor temple complex and reduce traffic in the area, officials said Monday.

The 21-kilometer road will be closed to trucks to reduce pollution, noise and vibrations that could damage the ancient ruins, said Soeung Kong, vice secretary-general of the Apsara Authority, the government agency that oversees the temples.

Construction will start this year and take three years to complete, he said. It will be the second road in the Angkor area funded by South Korea, connecting with existing roads to the north and northwest of the temples, said South Korean Embassy official Son Sungil. The first road extended south from the temple complex.

Tourism is a major foreign currency earner for cash-strapped Cambodia, which hosts nearly 1.5 million foreign tourists each year, mostly from South Korea, Japan and the United States. More than half of the tourists visit Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Siem Reap province.

The temples were built when Angkorian kings ruled over much of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries.

Conservationists have long expressed concerns about tourism's impact. They say uncontrolled pumping of underground water to meet the rising demand of hotels and residents in the nearby town of Siem Reap may be destabilizing the earth beneath the temples. -- AP

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Cometh the hour, cometh the man with the wrecking ball (Feature)

By Robert Carmichael

Phnom Penh - A blue sheet-metal fence around an old building in Phnom Penh is a bad omen for those keen on Cambodia's dwindling stock of colonial architecture.

'The presence of these fences is a worrying sign,' says one architectural historian, 'because when these fences go up it normally means the buildings are going to come down.'

The historian, who has lived in Cambodia for 16 years but does not want his name used, says the pace of destruction has accelerated in recent years.

'It is speeding up, and it has almost gone past the point of no return,' he says. 'I would think that more than half of the buildings I can remember as being important have now gone in 16 years.'

The latest building to be screened off is the venerable Renakse Hotel adjacent to the Royal Palace near the riverfront. Earlier this year the Renakse was the focus of a squabble between the leaseholder and the country's ruling party, which owns the building. The case went to court; the party won.

Should the hotel be demolished, which seems likely, it will be the fourth colonial-era building of merit to be knocked down this year alone, says French architect Michel Verrot, who has lived in Cambodia for 11 years.

By his count, 40 per cent of the capital's several hundred colonial buildings has been swept away in two decades.

Verrot runs the French-funded Mission du Patrimonie that assesses what is left of Phnom Penh's architectural heritage.

It also helps with restoration efforts on some colonial buildings, the oldest of which were constructed between 1885 and 1892.

'They are the first places in Phnom Penh where the new architecture was built which became the colonial architecture in Phnom Penh,' says Verrot.

When it comes to architectural heritage, Cambodia is defined by Angkor Wat, the magnificent ancient temples around the town of Siem Reap in the north-west.

Verrot says the domination of Angkor Wat blinds the government to the value of other heritage buildings, whether of colonial architecture or the 1950s and 1960s designs of Vann Molyvann, the country's foremost living architect.

Regarding the capital, Verrot says the biggest problem is not preserving architectural heritage, substantial though it is.

He bemoans the lack of attention paid to its urban heritage: the concept of a town with well laid-out gardens, wide avenues and unobstructed views between iconic buildings.

'Now all the views are becoming very disturbed without any global idea of town development,' Verrot says of the mushrooming of tower blocks and glass skyscrapers. 'There is no vision.'

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts oversees the country's heritage, but secretary of state Samraing Kamsan says it has limited authority to preserve the buildings. A key challenge is that Cambodians prefer modern buildings.

'They do not understand or love the traditional and the old-style building,' he says. 'You need to teach them to understand the value.'

There are other difficulties too. Some old buildings have numerous poor families living in them. One chapel, for example, contains more than 20 families, but they are in no position to pay for repairs.

Samraing Kamsan says colonial buildings in provincial capitals are also in trouble - years of strife and poverty meant preservation was not a priority. And there is the rocketing value of land.

'I do believe this is a problem,' he says, before adding a lack of cash to the queue. 'If we have no money to preserve, we cannot stop the development of the modern building.'

Verrot says the government's desire to see Phnom Penh emulate Bangkok and Singapore is undoing what is left of the city's colonial architecture.

'(The government's view is that) the heritage is in Siem Reap, and tourism must be at the seaside and in Siem Reap, but not in Phnom Penh,' he says. 'It's wrong, it's clearly wrong, but it is (the view).'

The architectural historian cited earlier believes the government, which wants tourists to remain in-country longer than the usual three days spent seeing the temples, is missing a trick. After all, Phnom Penh is not going to compete with shopping cities such as Singapore.

'When you look at Phnom Penh, all the things tourists come to see are almost all architectural. There's not really anything else,' he says. 'How are they going to attract people to stay in Cambodia
- Phnom Penh in particular - if there isn't architecture to look at?'
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