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In hydropower’s defence

Water starts to flow down a chute at the opening of the Kamchay hydropower dam in Kampot province
Water starts to flow down a chute at the opening of the Kamchay hydropower dam in Kampot province in 2011. Pha Lina

In hydropower’s defence

The discussion about hydroelectric power plants in Cambodia has two particularities. Both are negative. One is “China bashing” and the other is a relatively disproportionate focus on environmental impacts.

China bashing: This is the result of most hydroelectric power plants in Cambodia being funded by China. According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Chinese companies have invested over $1.6 billion in the construction of six dams. Although the data might suggest a theory that Cambodia is providing a special reserved seat for China in this area of infrastructure development, one should also wonder why other countries don’t invest in the sector, or even want to.

Japan, which is the biggest donor to Cambodia, has never been involved in large-scale hydropower plants. Why?

The Narmada dam project in India and the Koto Panjang dam project in Indonesia answer this. These were bitter experiences for the Japanese government, prompting it stop taking up such projects, which spark unending wars between environmental groups and authorities, and which eventually result in damage to the country’s humanitarian brand.

Members of the OECD provided about $200 million from 2000 to 2012 for investment in the energy sector. Indeed, these countries have the option to cover the costs of large-scale hydropower projects through loans, but records show that countries like Japan, Germany, Australia and France choose to handle less sensitive projects.

This argument suggests that no matter how environmentally conscious and technologically advanced a country is, you cannot build a hydropower plant without an environmental impact. In this light, the right question is: If China does not invest in hydropower in Cambodia, who will?

As for the disproportionate focus on environmental impacts, the total electricity supply in 2013 was 4,297 million kilowatt-hours, with imports from Vietnam and Thailand accounting for more than 60 per cent of this. Electricity prices in Cambodia are among the highest in the region due to a shortage of integrated transmission systems and the high cost of diesel fuel, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of domestic power generation.

According to an investment cost comparison by the Japan External Trade Organization, electricity in Phnom Penh costs about18 cents per kilowatt-hour, exceptionally high compared with 12 cents in Yangoon, 10 cents in Bangkok, 9 cents in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and 5 cents in Vientiane.

Renewable sources such as biofuel, wind energy and solar power can also be an option for small-scale generation, but the unstable output and high cost of these when trying to attain industrial-level output leads to high consumption prices, making such alternatives less attractive.

As such, although environment consideration is definitely required, public discussions should also properly weigh the merits of hydropower plants in the context of the overall economy. Besides an environmental analysis – which, again, is a must – a proper study should also be conducted to show the economic impact of hydropower, such as the number of households lit, the prices reduced, the expenses saved, the companies entered into the power plant sector, the jobs created by these companies, the income created from these jobs and the number of dependents helped by these incomes.

From the above argument, if economic benefits and national security are included in the discussion, it should be fair to conclude that at the current stage of development, hydropower plants are more a matter of “needs” rather than a matter of “wants” for Cambodia.

Sim Vireak
First secretary,
Cambodian Embassy in Japan

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