AMID the debate over hydropower and whether Cambodia should follow a similar path to neighbouring Laos by exploiting its river systems there is one point that government officials, environmentalists and the private sector all seem to agree on – this country needs electricity.
On the surface then, government confirmation this week that the Lower Sesan 2 Dam will export electricity to Vietnam would appear to be against this goal. After all, with some of the lowest rural electrification rates in the region (only North Korea, East Timor and Afghanistan rank lower), why would Cambodia export to Vietnam?
The key problem remains electricity transmission and the costs involved. For the project to be economically viable, developers Electricity of Vietnam International (EVNI) and the Royal Group would appear to have two choices. They could sell the electricity within Cambodia which would require the development of expensive transmission lines and almost certainly funding from third parties.
Or, the two companies could export to neighbouring Vietnam, which has a well-developed grid by comparison. According to the limited information we have on this project so far, it seems the project will attempt to do a combination of both.
Danh Serey, deputy director of the Environment Impact Assessment Department at the Ministry of Environment, gave perhaps the clearest official insight on Tuesday during a conference on the project held in Phnom Penh: “Only the left-over electricity from the use of local people will be sold to Vietnam,” he said.
Without knowing how much will remain in Cambodia, it remains impossible to weigh the domestic costs and benefits of the project. Mark Hanna, chief financial officer of the Royal Group, did not respond to emailed questions on the issue yesterday; neither did Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Le Minh Ngoc.
According to a 2009 study by Ian Baird, a researcher at the University of Michigan in the United States, the Lower Sesan 2 Dam promises to do considerable harm to fish stocks by blocking key tributaries of the Mekong River, the Sesan and Sre Pok. Meanwhile, the benefits remain less clear.
“There are a lot of questions from the business side of things,” Baird told The Post yesterday.
For some time now the government and a host of businesspeople have publically stated that Cambodia’s hydropower trade-off will give the country an improved source of lower-cost electricity with which to boost rural development and key sectors of the economy including agriculture.
We have been told these benefits will outweigh the associated environmental and socio-economic costs of dam construction.
If this is indeed the case, then surely there needs to be some explanation as to how, and how much, electricity will be delivered within Cambodia. Unfortunately, unless the necessary transmission lines are put in place, the reality would appear to be not very much.