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NGOs condemn dam power at COP21

Workers construct the framework of foundations at the Lower Sesan II dam construction site in Stung Treng’s Sesan district last year.
Workers construct the framework of foundations at the Lower Sesan II dam construction site in Stung Treng’s Sesan district last year. Phak Seangly

NGOs condemn dam power at COP21

Major hydropower projects like the large-scale dams under way in Cambodia’s waterways are a “false solution” to climate change, according to a global coalition of 300 NGOs who are calling on parties at UN climate talks in Paris (COP21) to bar such schemes from climate initiatives.

The manifesto, released last week with five Cambodian NGO signatories, says that hydropower projects posing as “clean and green” energy have become the beneficiaries of climate funding through credit schemes like the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds.

However, the ensuing worldwide rush to construct some 3,700 hydropower dams is likely to aggravate rather than mitigate the effects of climate change, it says. Among their adverse effects, increased greenhouse emissions from reservoirs, in particular in tropical climates, are deemed comparable to the impact of the aviation sector and in some cases, greater than coal-fired power plants.

A recent report by Scientists for the Mekong warning COP21 negotiators about the risks of hydropower echoes these concerns in a regional context. The series of 11 hydropower dams planned for the river, it says, could cut the output of Cambodia and Vietnam’s fisheries by about 560,000 tonnes per year while risking extinction for species like the giant catfish and Mekong dolphin.

“Hydropower dams are being promoted at COP21 as ‘A Clean and Green Source of Energy’ . . . This could not be further from the truth,” says report author Dr. Lilliana Corredor, who notes that endorsing hydropower as clean energy could unleash a deluge of Chinese-led dam developments.

“We recommend that COP21 . . . address the issue of hydropower dams as big polluters, which intensify climate change. And, that a Global Carbon Market in which rich countries are allowed to offset their emissions against clean energy, does not include hydropower.”

Hydropower has already been instated as a key element of Cambodia’s climate change plan – known as its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution – and is unlikely to be reversed. But local NGOs argue that the implementation of hydropower schemes poses a major ecological and socio-economic disruption.

“The fact that hydrodams are seen as beneficial to long-term economic growth does not transfer to reducing poverty or justify destroying the environment,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of NGO Equitable Cambodia, who is a signatory to the global manifesto.

Vuthy notes specific concerns about the threat of the Lower Sesan II dam to the livelihoods of 1 million people dependent on the river. “The government has done no proper studies on hydropower impacts, so we need to explore other options and have a clear plan.”

However, Zhonghua Ren, secretary of the board of directors of Hydropower Lower Sesan II, called the project a clean and economic solution to Cambodia’s power deficit. “[Lower Sesan II] will provide the national power grid with safe, reliable, excellent and cheaper clean energy, which will play an active role in [numerous] fields, such as boosting the local economy and creating job opportunities,” he said.

COP21 delegates from the Ministry of the Environment were not available for comment yesterday.

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