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Friday, October 01, 2010

City's thirst for groundwater threatens ancient temples

SIEM REAP, Cambodia: The five-star hotels around the ancient temples of Angkor are oases of green - sleek new buildings ringed by tropical forests and sprawling lawns.

But the water used to keep them so is being sucked from groundwater under the nearby city of Siem Reap, threatening the stability of the centuries-old World Heritage-listed landmark.

The widespread, unregulated pumping of groundwater throughout Siem Reap has raised concerns that the temples, including the world's largest religious monument, Angkor Wat, could crack or crumble if too much water is drained away.

The temples and towers of the 400-square-kilometre Angkor site sit on a base of sand, kept firm by a constant supply of groundwater that rises and falls with the seasons, but which is now being used to supply a burgeoning city.

With the number of visitors approaching 2 million a year, increasing pressure is being put on the scarce water resource. Thousands of illegal private pumps have been sunk across the city, pulling millions of litres of water from the ground each day.

UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, says that no one knows just how much water is being drawn from the ground, or how much can be taken safely.

Water is a precious commodity in Siem Reap, particularly during the dry season, when tourist numbers are highest. And the population of the city, barely five kilometres from Angkor Wat, has doubled in a little more than a decade to about 200,000.

The government-run Siem Reap water supply authority has the capacity to pump nine megalitres of water a day from underground, its director general, Som Kunthea, said.

But Mr Som estimates the city, even at its current size, is already using more than 50 megalitres daily. Authorities believe there are more than 6000 private pumps and 1000 wells sunk across the city.

The deputy director of water management for the Cambodian government's Angkor conservation body, Peou Hang, said the pumping was unregulated and almost impossible to police.

The Cambodian government has commissioned the Japanese government development agency JICA to investigate future water options for Siem Reap.

Its report, now in draft stage and to be completed by the end of the year, is likely to recommend regulating the pumping of groundwater as well as bringing water from other sources, including Tonle Sap, a lake 20 kilometres south of Siem Reap, an option that Mr Som would ''cost a lot and make water more expensive''.

Mr Som said the government's water authority does not have the capacity to supply all of Siem Reap with drinking water.

''Right now, there is no sign of impact on the temples,'' he said. ''But if we don't move now … if we keep letting people pump water and the population continues to increase, it will have an impact.''
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US Official Says Cambodia Must Repay a Debt Portion

Cambodia will have to pay at least some of its war-era debt before the US can consider forgiving the rest, a State Department official told Congress on Thursday.

Joseph Yun, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the US administration does not have a policy to cancel debt, for fear that it sends the wrong message in debt management.

Cambodia owes the US some $300 million, plus fees, in debt incurred during the Lon Nol regime of the 1970s, but current officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, say they should not have to pay back money borrowed by the pre-Khmer Rouge government.

Cambodia and the Paris Club group of creditors agreed to restructure the debt in 1995, but Cambodia has yet to ratify the agreement, Yun told the Foreign Affairs Committee's Asia, Pacific and Global Environment Subcommittee.

“The administration has therefore urged the Cambodian government to sign the bilateral agreement and re-establish a track record of timely repayment under that agreement,” Yun said in official testimony.

“We have communicated to the Cambodian government that if it makes scheduled payments for at least one year, the US government would signal to the IMF that efforts are underway to resolve the country's official arrears,” he said. “Should Cambodia then obtain an IMF program and a future Paris Club debt treatment, the action could pave the way for generous rescheduling of the accumulated arrears owed to the United States.”

The total amount owed the government with fees climbed to $445 million in 2009, Yun said.

However, Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat from American Samoa and chairman of the subcommittee, said precedents exist for debt forgiveness, including with Iraq and Vietnam, whose debts were much greater.

In those countries, the debt was canceled and the funds diverted to education, he said.

"Greater engagement with Cambodia could help the United States achieve our foreign policy goal in the region and counter adverse influence requiring a payment of debt,” Faleomavaega said during the hearing. “Requiring a payment of a debt incurred by an illegitimate government more than 30 years ago, without consideration of Cambodia's historical drama, will run counter to the need for greater engagement.”

The US has sought to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, where China holds much sway and provides aid packages and infrastructure without some of the Western benchmarks for human rights and democracy.

Cambodia, which benefits greatly from both Chinese and Western aid, has insisted the debt be forgiven, saying it could better spend the money on education and health programs.

Hem Heng, Cambodia's ambassador to the US, said it was “not reasonable” to expect Cambodia to sign onto a debt repayment schedule only to review it a year later.

“Once we sign it, we must be obliged to pay a certain amount per year,” he said. “It is not possible that we implement this for one year and then review it.”
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