In the continuing game of chess in the Mekong region regarding if, where and when hydropower dams should be built, this week’s delay to a final decision on the Xayaburi dam in Laos represented the best possible outcome for Cambodia.
The question remains, however: Can the Kingdom generate enough hydropower to meet domestic demand – and even surplus for export – without harming fish stocks, the environment and giving neighbouring countries justification for what would be similarly damaging infrastructure?
In terms of the Xayaburi dam, Cambodia would likely be one of the biggest losers in the region in terms of environmental impact given fertilising silt would wash downstream in lesser quantities and migratory fish could find breeding patterns interrupted, according to some studies, although precise estimates remain unclear. Laos’ plans for a passage to allow fish to pass Xayaburi and indeed the overall environmental impact of the project were submitted late, regional government officials said.
In Cambodia’s case, the Laotian project would almost certainly add to difficulties in striking an appropriate environmental-economic balance when building domestic dams, two of which are slated for the Mekong but remain a concern in terms of their own impact.
If Cambodia overtly opposes the Xayaburi dam, how would Thailand, Vietnam and Laos respond to plans for two huge dams in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces that – if built on schedule – would produce 3,600MW by 2020? The stakes regarding these two projects are high given they would likely match spiralling domestic energy demand, if built. And would Laos feel obliged to abide by an agreement offering Cambodia 1,500MW of electricity by 2015 if the government overtly opposes Vientiane? Hanoi, for instance, has in the past reneged on smaller export electricity export deals agreed with Phnom Penh to protect its own supply.
In other words, in considering dams in neighbouring countries, the possible permeations for Cambodia’s nascent power sector extend far beyond whether or not these same dams are likely to directly impact resources and the environment here.
As the least connected country in the Mekong region in terms of grid power, Cambodia surely has a right to develop their share of new dams in the area, especially when Laos is mostly exporting electricity to the likes of Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia therefore has a just reason to oppose the Xayaburi dam, even if – like the rest of the region – the Kingdom is ultimately motivated by its own economic interests.
The good news for Cambodia moving on from this week’s delay is that other countries also seem unconvinced by Xayaburi, but whether this translates into equitable dam development in the region remains to be seen.
If it does, this convoluted process of dialogue will have gone some way to achieving its goals of minimising environmental impact and maximising resource benefits region-wide.
But that also means the Kingdom has the most to lose if it ends up being outmuscled during increasingly delicate negotiations over the region’s energy future. Thus far though, Cambodia can remain cautiously optimistic.