Cambodia will have a difficult time coping with the enormous loss of fish and fisheries-based livelihoods if a proposed set of hydropower dams is constructed on the lower Mekong River – according to a recently released impact study, even if it adheres to expert recommendations.
According to the strategic environmental assessment authorised by the Mekong River Commission and released last month, “Cambodia is the country most exposed to fish losses” among the MRC’s member countries, which also include Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The document says “more than 1 million fisheries-dependent people could lose their livelihoods” in Cambodia due to impacts from mainstream Mekong dams, and that the country would have difficulty generating alternative protein sources to make up for the loss of an estimated 300,000 tonnes of fish per year.
“The implications of these [fish] losses could be severe for many fishery-dependent families and for the whole food security of Cambodia, since more than 50 percent of all protein consumed in the country are from Mekong fish,” said
Eric Baran, senior research scientist at the WorldFish Centre in Cambodia, a key consultant on the environmental assessment.
A total of 12 dams have been proposed for the Lower Mekong River in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. In Cambodia, the government has mooted two dams for construction on the Mekong: the Sambor Dam in Kratie province’s Sambor district, and another in Stung Treng province.
Due to the potential negative effects of the projects, the SEA recommended that the MRC countries delay any decisions about initiating hydropower projects on the lower Mekong for a period of up to 10 years to allow for further research.
Speaking to reporters in Hanoi on Friday, visiting United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the study’s recommendation, saying there should be “a pause” before further study of the issue.
Mekong campaigners, however, have gone further, saying the construction of any dams on the river would undermine the region’s work towards reducing poverty and hunger – imposing formidable adjustment costs on Cambodia.
Ame Trandem, a Mekong campaigner at International Rivers, called for a “regional moratorium” on the construction of mainstream dams, saying any such projects “alter the river’s natural pulse and serve as a barrier to vital fish migration routes”.
Attempting to replace the protein gained from fisheries with other protein sources, she added, would be extremely expensive and complicated.
“While the dams may produce some revenue for a few, benefits are unlikely to ever reach the poor,” she added.
Alan Brooks, director of the WorldFish Centre in Cambodia, said initiatives to reduce the negative impacts caused by the dams would require “substantial investment”.
“Even if fish supply is substantially increased through aquaculture or relatively cheap imports, the fishery-dependent poor may still not benefit,” he said.
“The Mekong basin is one of the most productive aquatic systems in the world, providing essentially ‘free’ fish,” said Brooks. The depletion of fish as a protein source would require the affected population to adapt to alternative, agriculture-based livelihoods such as raising livestock, he added.
Chhith Sam Ath, director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said it would be “difficult to find alternative livelihoods for the rural poor”, many of whom have limited education.
Among its specific recommendations for Cambodia, the MRC’s assessment states that the proposed Stung Treng and Sambor dam projects would “create a situation of extreme crisis for the populations of affected provinces and could provoke an emergency food security situation for the poor”.
Two options for the Sambor dam – one that would produce 2,600 megawatts of power and a smaller 460-megawatt version – have been proposed so far. As a partial solution, the report suggested the Kingdom consider the 460-megawatt option, which would see the scaled-down, partial damming of the Sambor Rapids.
But even this might not alleviate the effects on local populations. “The option to build Sambor so that it does not block the entire channel may help avoid some impact, but is likely to still result in devastating fishery impacts,” Trandem said.
She added: “The loss of even a small percentage of [fisheries] represents tens of millions of dollars’ worth of fish and thousands of tonnes.”
Officials said they were taking the MRC report seriously. “We have seen the MRC reports and Cambodia has established a working group to study the overall impacts in Cambodia,” said Nao Thouk, director of the Fisheries Administration.
He said the government would hold a meeting to discuss the impacts of the projects.
Chea Narun, chief of the hydropower planning office at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said the government would try to “minimise the negative impacts” of the mainstream Mekong dams, though he did not give any more details. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA