Do-it-yourself hydro-electric power-station builder Tout Sok Hen, 36, left.
The waterwheel drives the dynamo, far left.
National and International World Environment day last Sunday once more focussed attention
on Cambodia's uneasy relationship with nature. But as Bou Saroeun discovered
in Stung Treng province there are success stories amid the destruction of the nation's
ecology even though there is still a long way to go.
TOUT SOK HENG was never trained as an engineer, he never even finished primary school,
but the 36-year-old soldier is the proud builder and owner of Cambodia's only hydro-electric
Admittedly it is not big, but it provides enough electricity for his army camp and
a local village.
At the same time he has taken care not to upset the ecological balance of his surroundings
by providing bypasses for fish and keeping the reservoir level below that of surrounding
farmland so as not to cause floods.
Heng's success in generating electricity has seen government officials and high-level
military officers seeking him out for advice, with plans to do the same.
However, he said they go away disappointed when he says to them "Aht mean plong,
mean pleng" - meaning, "I have no plans but I do have power."
Everything was designed as it was being built and there are no plans to follow or
be passed on. He used materials at hand and the only equipment he could build was
Heng said he conceived the idea when he was a soldier stationed in Siem Reap, watching
a water wheel used for irrigation. When he saw the power of the water wheel he thought
it could have uses other than irrigation.
Heng has relied almost entirely on common sense to create the power plant, saying
he did not know where his skills came from.
"I did not learn it from anyone and I have not even seen a picture in a magazine
of a hydro power station," he said.
He built his first power plant in 1993 using the hub from an ox cart as the basis
of the water wheel and a 1 kilowatt dynamo to produce the power. From there he improved
his design to produce more and more power.
The race, which diverts water to the water wheel, is made from a hardwood called
Kaki which he claims is stronger than concrete and will last 20 to 30 years.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh visited the power station when he was co-prime minister
in 1996 and promised to provide Heng with $6,000 to rebuild the big dynamo. But Heng
said only $4000 ever reached him.
"I know that the money flowed to other people and other places," he said
Now he is seeking $891 to repair the dynamo, saying he has asked the Government to
pay because he gives his electricity free of charge to the army base. Villagers are
charged 6000 riel a month for their power supply.
However, Heng is concerned that he might not be able to generate power for much longer.
He said that deforestation in the area is causing erosion, which threatens to fill
in the stream that supplies water for the power station.
"Now half of the water flow has been lost because of tree cutting," he
said."I worry that next year water will be gone if the authorities do not care
about forest destruction."
Because of these fears he has bought a petrol generator to use when the water runs
out during the dry season, which he believes will happen for the first time this
He said he would like to build a bigger reservoir for water, but he is reluctant
to do so because seepage could cause problems for neighboring farmland.
Heng's power station doubles as a playground for locals.
He said that during the Khmer and Chinese New Year holidays a lot of visitors from
Stung Treng town come to swim in the reservoir, while the more daring couples cling
to each other and throw themselves down the sluice, which makes an ideal waterslide
so long as the sluice gate to the water wheel is shut.
An area where forest has been cut down and burned in Stung Treng, with corn planted in the left of the picture. But who is to blame:
ethnic minorities or underpaid military?
For people with something more intimate in mind he has built bungalows on the site
that can be rented for a couple of hours for 3000 riel.
The influx of visitors has meant extra income for Heng, who has set up a restaurant
to feed them; he also takes tourist photographs and hires out space for souvenir
He said he is happy for other villagers to cash in on the opportunity the tourists
create, but he is disappointed that some of his neighbors not only don't take it
up but in fact harm the initiative by throwing their rubbish in the water and polluting
Villagers clamp down on illegal fishing
A trial project which saw 16 villages in the Siem Bok district of Stung Treng
assume responsibility for the management of their fisheries has resulted in a dramatic
drop in illegal fishing in the area.
In the trial areas, fishing techniques such as poisoning and explosives have dropped
The results were released at a seminar in Stung Treng last week run by the Culture
and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA) and sponsored by the Environment
Working Group of the NGO Forum.
Hoeung Hun, Agriculture Program officer of Community Aid Abroad for Australia Oxfam
said that the people in the project have taken ownership of the resource and realize
it is in their interest to stop illegal fishing.
Chea Vannaren, chief of the fisheries office in Stung Treng, said the villagers understand
what is legal and what is illegal.
He said they also now understand that if they do not protect the fishery they will
"The people here live with the Mekong and die with the Mekong," he said.
Son Enthorn, governor of Stung Treng district, sees community management as essential.
"If we don't have participation from the community or the villagers we will
have difficulty conserving the natural resources," he said.
"Even though we try, in the end we will be unsuccessful.
"We want community cooperation with government; if they join they will make
more effort at conservation because they think all these things are their property."
Much of the illegal fishing in Stung Treng has been blamed on military and police
Chea Vannaren, chief of the Stung Treng fisheries office, said most of the military
involved are fishing to supplement their meagre government rations.
Pang Tha, governor of Siem Pang district, echoed Vannaren's comments and said the
soldiers often used explosives because of their ready access to hand grenades.
He also accused Lao traders along the border of supplying Khmers with fish poison
to catch large quantities of fish which are then sold in Laos and Thailand.
Tep Bunnarith, from CEPA, said it was important to remember that this was not a case
of saving fish for no reason.
He said his association is concerned that Cambodia will face a major protein shortage
if the fish resource is destroyed, and it would be the poor who suffered.
"Fish is the major food for them to gain protein. They have no chance to buy
beef or pork or other meat."
Forest destruction blame disputed
Stung Treng province has seen a quarter of its forests cleared for farmland in
the past six years according to provincial authorities.
While some officials have blamed slash-and-burn agriculture by ethnic minorities
for the devastation, Nin Chan Samean, director of Stung Treng's agriculture department,
said the real culprits are local officials and former Khmer Rouge soldiers; the ethnic
minorities agricultural methods had little effect.
He said the land clearing started in 1993 following the election. He said there was
an increase in the number of public servants and soldiers, but their pay was insufficient
to live on.
In order to supplement their income they took to clearing sections of forest for
He said since then there has been the reintegration of former Khmer Rouge soldiers
who have the same problem - not enough money. They too have turned to farming
to make ends meet.
But for the provincial governor, Chim Choun, it is the ethnic minorites who are to
He said that the majority of the province's population are ethnic minorties and that
they practise slash-and-burn agriculture,
You Kanvimean, deputy of the Stung Treng forestry office, agrees with the governor,
saying that once the forest is burnt grass grows in its place and trees cannot get
But this view is disputed by Dave Hubber of the NGO TERRA (Towards Ecological Recovery
and Regional Alliance) .
He said the image of the ethnic minorities' slash-and-burn or swidden agriculture
is very negative, but there is no proof it destroys forests.
He said the minorities have been practising swidden farming in the area for up to
300 years and during that time there has been a healthy and vibrant forest.
Kanvimean said they have nurtured the forest because it has provided them with medicine
and animals for food and skins.
He also warned about the social costs if the ethnic minorities are prevented from
practising their traditional form of agriculture.
He said they have no knowledge of any other form of agriculture and it is likely
they would go to the cities to try to find work. If this happened they would probably
lose their cultural identity, language and traditions.
He said before any moves are made to ban swidden agriculture there needs to be an
investigation about its real effects.
"ADB, WB and the government have to prove it before they say shifting cultivation
is destroying the forest" he said.