AN AUSTRALIAN-funded rail project in Cambodia has been marred by poor construction, botched surveys leading to the evictions of families, infighting between contractors, delays and cost overruns, a leaked official report shows.
It also reveals that workers on the project endure unsafe working conditions without proper accommodation, clean water or hygienic toilets.
The disruption is exposed in a report by the international consortium funding the $143 million project – Australia’s international aid agency AusAID and the Asian Development Bank.
Australia has pledged $26 million to the project, which is already at the centre of controversy over the resettlement of thousands of people forced to move by construction work.
Frustrated by delays, the Australian company Toll Holdings, part of a joint venture that was to operate the railway when construction was complete, suspended its role in March.
The project involves rehabilitating or building 641 kilometres of track, with the aim of integrating Cambodia with a regional network including Vietnam and Thailand.
It has come under fire from Cambodian human rights groups after disrupting more than 4000 families living along the tracks, of whom 1050 had to move home.
The report, prepared by AusAID and ADB experts in April and May, found existing problems were far from resolved, and also exposed new issues.
It reveals that botched survey methods on part of the line misjudged where construction would take place.
The mistake, discovered only in April, means more people might have to move.
”In order to physically build the railway, more households may be affected and additional resettlement may be required,” it says. ”This is a major issue for all stakeholders and must be resolved as a matter of urgency.”
The report reveals defects and ”poor construction methodology” on parts of the line and criticises foreign consultants for a ”lack of control and poor supervision” early in the work. Construction is being carried out by France’s TSO (Cambodia) Co Ltd and engineering by Japan’s Nippon Koei Co. The French company declined to comment, while the Japanese company could not be contacted.
The report says the relationship between the two companies has become ”strained” and it calls on them ”to develop a more amicable and mutually respectful mode of co-operation”. It urges Cambodia’s railways department to take a more active role in promoting ”a non-adversarial environment focused on completing the works” and managing the project – tasks the department is reluctant to take up.
The report says railway officials relied on consultants to do routine management, even though they were meant to take over day-to-day operations after Toll pulled out.
Toll has a 30-year concession to operate the network in a joint venture called Toll Royal Railways, with a conglomerate owned by Australian-Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng.
Toll has made no public statement on its withdrawal from the project.
”I am not in a position to comment at all,” said Andrew Ethell, Toll’s general manager for corporate affairs.
But in a leaked letter dated March 16, Toll Royal Railways informed the Cambodian government it would suspend operations until next year because delays meant the project was not profitable.
Work on the southern part of the line was due to be finished by May last year, but it is now 335 days behind schedule and will not be complete until October this year, although heavy rain could push this back until 2013.
Work on the northern part was due to be complete by the end of this month. The report says it is ”possible” the work will be done by September next year.
On labour conditions, the report says, despite improvements, workers’ camps in the south were ”mostly garbage-strewn and water supply in some camps [was] not regularly replenished”. Camps in the north ”lacked basic provisions (proper accommodation facilities, safe water supply, hygienic toilets, etc)”.
Last month the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh said it was aware of poor working conditions and inappropriate surveying methods and had asked the project’s partners to investigate. Consultants on the project and the ADB have admitted to the Cambodian press that the project is running out of funding and requires between $50 million and $100 million to complete, a shortfall the ADB has refused to pay.
An AusAID spokeswoman said problems revealed by the report were not uncommon for such complex projects. Despite this, she said it was making good progress and was on track for completion by 2015.
The report highlighted a lack of accountability in Australia’s overseas aid program, said Gareth Bryant, a campaigner with the AID/WATCH activist group.
■ Australia is spending $26m to help rebuild Cambodia’s rail system
■ All up, the project will cost $143m
■ It involves rehabilitating 641 km of track
■ Proponents say it will help lift Cambodia out of poverty
■ About 4000 families, many living in shanty towns, have been affected
■ About 1050 families have had to move