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Blackouts tell tale of two cities

Blackouts tell tale of two cities

It is barely dawn in the quiet suburb of Phnom Penh Thmey, but already the silence has been pierced by the cacophony of generators.

On some streets, nearly every household has one of the machines burning through diesel in a bid to fill their basic electricity needs: refrigeration, lights, a fan.

But less than two kilometres away in Tuol Kork district, the streets are silent. Here, power flows unimpeded, and the residents sleep in the relative comfort of whirling fans.

For months now, residents of Phnom Penh have been grappling with power cuts in the sweltering heat, but they haven’t done so equally. Those living in select neighbourhoods – the ones deemed to house the most important residents and necessary businesses – have yet to see a single blackout this season. Others haven’t been so lucky.

David Chacko, 54, who heads Global Renewal, an organisation that runs a children’s centre here, knows this discrepancy first-hand.

Chacko lives in the Phnom Penh Thmey commune in Russey Keo, one of the districts on the outskirts of the city that has borne the brunt of the electricity shortfall. At the children’s centre Global Renewal runs in Tuol Kork, the lights almost never go out.

Chacko said: “It’s not a problem there. On the rare occasion when it gets cut, after five minutes, the power is back on.”

Filled with high-rise condominiums and villas, Tuol Kork is one of Phnom Penh’s wealthier districts. Chacko thinks this is why it has been spared the outages.

“It’s where the big shots live, isn’t it?”

One of the communes bearing the brunt of the outages is Tuol Svay Prey I in Chamkarmon district, particularly the area around the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where residents face cuts of up to eight hours a day.

Thirty-three-year-old Srey Mom runs a grocery stall along Street 95, just around the corner from the museum. With the power cut for much of the day, business has taken a hit.

 “I can’t sell ice cream without refrigeration,” she explains. “I’ve had to throw all my ice cream away because they melted. It costs me $30 each time.”

According to Urban Voice Cambodia a crowd-sourcing internet platform that has been mapping the power cuts around the city since they were launched a year ago, Srey Mom’s neighbourhood is among those suffering the most.

Nora Lindstrom, the site’s co-ordinator, told the Post that reports of blackouts have been coming in thick and fast from Tuol Sleng up to Olympic Stadium.

“The Daun Penh area seems to be less affected – but that’s where you have the tourist areas and the [government] ministries,” she said.

That should come as no surprise, according to a senior official at state-owned energy supplier Electricite du Cambodge, who confirmed that residents who lived near installations like embassies, the Royal Palace and government ministries will continue to be safe from cuts.

The official, a department head at the EDC who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed out that Cambodia has benefited from “the millions of dollars” that foreign governments have pumped into the country.

“How can we cut the power at their embassies?” he asked.

“These are special places that need power. But people who live in other areas, they will face blackouts, because we need to provide power to the special zones.”

He declined to provide specifics on what precisely qualified an area as a “special zone” or where these zones are located.

During the dry season, Phnom Penh suffers electricity outages as water levels in the country’s hydropower dams drop.

Although only about 10 per cent of the city’s energy comes from hydropower, the shortfall is enough to cause crippling power cuts to a city already strapped for energy.

For instance, the 190-megawatt Kamchay dam in Kampot province is currently only operating at 10 per cent capacity, the EDC official said.

To cope with the shortfall, the EDC has long resorted to “rolling cuts” – where power in one part of the city is cut to feed the needs of another.

But while residents recognise there simply isn’t enough power to go around, they point out that if a schedule of the cuts was made public, they would be better able to plan around the outages.

Sar Sina, 32, who runs Spanish restaurant La Plaza on Street 278, said such a publicly available timetable would help tremendously. “If I knew when the cuts would be coming, at least I would be able to prepare and make some plans,” she said.

In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu – a city in a developing country that has faced many of the same obstacles as Cambodia – they do just that. The city’s electric authorities publish a “load-shedding schedule”, which informs residents of the times of day and duration for which they should expect electricity cuts.

Ty Thany, executive director of the Electricity Authority of Cambodia, said the EDC does have schedules and plans of its own for when and where power is cut in the city, but they’re not for public consumption.

“It depends on how important some places are. For places that are not very important, they will get their power cut,” said Thany.

So why can’t Phnom Penh offer its residents the same public service provided in Kathmandu?

According to the EDC official, publishing this plan was impossible due to “technicalities regarding the delivery of electricity”.

He points out that depending on where they were within the “same zone”, consumers would receive power at different times.

“To minimise problems, we won’t publish any schedules,” he added, somewhat incongruously.

In the meantime, his advice to the capital’s residents? Get used to it.

“This will last until June when the rainy season comes. Please be patient about this.”


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