NEWS that Laos is set to move ahead with construction of the controversial Xayaburi Dam without further agreed consultation with the rest of the Mekong region threatens to destroy hydropower cooperation. But that doesn’t mean that Cambodia should follow a similarly irresponsible route that threatens environmental and socio-economic damage.
While Cambodia needs to raise electricity output as much as the rest of the countries in the Mekong region, indeed perhaps more so given its low level of rural electrification, to consider Vientiane’s abuse of the system as carte blanche to move ahead regardless with its own dams would be foolish.
Even if the likes of Vietnam, probably to be a major benefactor from the likes of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Cambodia, exert pressure on Phnom Penh to move ahead, the government needs to hold firm.
While the export of electricity to Vietnam will bring in revenues to the country, and particularly the likes of the Royal Group which is jointly developing the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, economically it is far from clear yet whether such projects make economic – let along environmental – sense.
The key question that researchers including the Mekong River Commission and International Rivers continue to point out is that these dams potentially threaten fish migratory patterns which would only harm stocks. With many rural Cambodians gaining valuable protein from these fish, the trade-off for much-needed electricity may not be a sensible one given that the country’s food security will be tested. It means food will have to come from other sources, most likely at greater cost.
So while Cambodia desperately needs to catch up with electricity demand that is growing at about 25 percent annually, the socio-economic trade-off in the form of the livelihoods of fishermen and food is not necessarily a valid one.
Cambodia should therefore try to do everything it can to keep the regional framework of hydropower consultation while sticking to strict environmental and socio-economic impact assessments domestically. To so would be to help protect the basis of a significant portion of socio-economic activity at home while hoping to minimise the fallout from other hydropower projects abroad.
Certainly most experts thus far say Cambodia has to think about more pressing issues such as electricity transmission once it is produced before developing a fully coherent dams policy. Rather than rush to follow ‘battery of Southeast Asia’ hydropower model it would be far more prudent to do the exact opposite of the Kingdom’s northern neighbour. In other words, Cambodia should learn from Laos’ mistakes when it comes to building dams, and unfortunately, Vientiane’s plan to move ahead with the Xayaburi Dam looks to be among its most ill-advised.