Cambodia’s Hydro Plans Carry Steep Costs
NEW YORK -- The Cambodian government has committed to the construction of five dams along the Mekong River in order to meet a huge demand for electricity, but environmental groups warn that severe repercussions loom for this strategy.
By Lawrence Del Gigante, IPS
Photo: A fisherman on the Si Phan Don riverine archipelago of the Mekong River. Credit: Courtesy of Suthep Kritsanavarin/Oxfam
“While each project proposed in Cambodia comes with a different set
of impacts, large dams are likely to widen the gap between the rich and
the poor, increase malnourishment levels and lead to an environmentally
unsustainable future,” Ame Trandem, South East Asia programme director
for International Rivers, told IPS.
Four dam projects have been approved so far in Cambodia, with one
already operational. All are being developed by Chinese companies on
build-operate-transfer agreements, according to Trandem.
The Mekong River runs through six countries, including China and
Vietnam, most of which are planning the construction of hydroelectric
“The plans to build a cascade of 11 Mekong mainstream dams is one of
the greatest threats currently facing Cambodia,” said Trandem.
The mandate on planning and development of hydropower in Cambodia
lies within the ministry of industry, mines and energy, which did not
respond to requests for comment.
Another danger of damming the Mekong is the threat to the Mekong
delta, an extremely fertile area of land which is responsible for much
of the region’s rice supply.
“As the Mekong River feeds and employs millions of people in the
region for free, it would be irresponsible to proceed with the Xayaburi
and other mainstream dams,” said Trandem.
The Mekong is one of the only rivers in the world to reverse its flow
in the dry season. This natural mechanism buffers the intrusion of salt
water from the South China Sea into the delta, and could be upset by
Dams also block fish migration routes, alter flows, and change
aquatic habitats, so these projects are also likely to have an adverse
effect on Cambodia’s fisheries.
“The Mekong River Commission’s Strategic Environmental Assessment
warned that more than one million fisheries-dependent people in Cambodia
would lose their livelihoods and even more would suffer from food
insecurity,” said Trandem.
“The loss of even a small percentage of the Mekong’s fisheries can represent in a loss of tens of millions of dollars.”
Partnerships have been established between the countries through
which the Mekong runs in order to prevent overharvesting of the river’s
resources. However, China is not a signatory to the 1995 Mekong
Agreement, and can effectively build these projects independently from
downstream countries. The dams in Cambodia are being financed by Chinese
“The impacts of these projects are already being felt downstream,” said Trandem.
Hydroelectricity, even if a successful venture, will not solve the country’s electrification problems, other analysts say.
“Right now it is relatively catastrophic, the power situation in the
country,” Alexander Ochs, the director of climate and energy at the
Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, told IPS.
Cambodia has one of the lowest electrification rates in Southeast
Asia, estimated at only 24 percent, according to the Asian Development
The government aims to raise the national electrification rate to 70
percent by 2020, according to the ADB, by expanding the grid and
sourcing more than half of the needed electricity from the Mekong River.
A large complication is transmitting the electricity, with only the
major cities and surrounding areas having access to power lines, meaning
people in rural areas will not benefit from the hydro.
“The number of people that are really connected to a grid as we know
it, a modern power service or energy line, in rural areas is as little
as seven percent of the population. Overall, nationwide, it’s about 15
percent,” said Ochs.
Biomass is very popular for heating and cooking, predominantly burning wood for fires and stoves.
“Everything else comes from off-grid or micro-grid diesel generators
and this is very inefficient and very costly, a very expensive, very
dirty way to produce electricity,” said Ochs.
Currently, 91 percent of Cambodia’s power plants are fuelled by
imported light diesel and heavy fuel oil, not including the diesel it
takes to fuel stand-alone generators.
“All of this happens in a country where you have incredible renewable
energy potential. It has amazing potential for wind, very, very good
potential for solar,” said Ochs.
Importantly, the solar potential in Cambodia is very high where it’s
needed, including in the populated areas, meaning solar technologies can
be installed domestically, such as solar panels on the roofs of houses,
according to Ochs.
Solar technologies could provide off-grid communities with access to
power as well as promoting clean energy in the country. However, solar
technologies can be expensive, lack the reliability of stand-alone
generators and often need constant maintenance.
The situation is exacerbated by the presence of imitation solar
products on the market, which often break easily, thereby diminishing
consumer trust in the technology.
Cambodia’s potential for renewable energies exceeds many countries in
the developed world, analysts say, and Cambodia is in a good position
to create favourable economies of scale for renewable energies.
“I wouldn’t argue for building a national grid, giant coal plants and
importing coal, or developing only large hydro, as recent actions seem
to suggest. Let’s work with the system as it is today, and develop
distributed renewable solutions on the ground,” said Ochs.
Published by: Magne Ove Varsi