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Rivers of power: the dam debate heats up

Rivers of power: the dam debate heats up

C ambodia has 17 hydropower dams planned on at least a dozen of its rivers. Matthew

Grainger looks at the arguments of the proponents, and of the critics.

CAMBODIA is now staring at what some celebrate - and others fear - as inevitable:

17 or more hydropower dams that will change the Kingdom.

The question is will it be changed for better or worse?

Advocates say dam building should start "tomorrow". Damaging floods will

be controlled and farmland irrigated. Hydropower is the only rational, clean and

affordable option for the future. It will drive development, encourage industry and

earn foreign income, as sure as it is Cambodia's right to use its most precious and

abundant resource - water.

Critics say it's not too late to stop what they believe will be an irreversible disaster.

Entire ecosystems and fisheries will die, there will be a debt crisis, communities

will be forced off their land and an urban elite will prosper at the expense of the

majority rural poor. At the very least, they say, local communities should have an

informed say on what's going on; the issue being too important to be left to those

with vested interests.

The debate as to whether the benefits provided by dams will outweigh the economic,

social and ecological costs has never been a very robust or public one here.

But now that Cambodia is poised - after more than 30 years of interrupted study -

to dam its rivers, more people are saying serious debate must now begin.

PERHAPS the biggest problem is that Cambodia has no say on what its neighbors are

doing upstream under Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Mekong River Commission

(MRC) programs, designed to feed the soaring energy demands of Thailand, Vietnam

and southern China.

Laos has 56 dams planned or being built; Vietnam 36; China 15 on the Mekong itself

and an unknown amount on tributaries; Thailand at least two more dams, and two projects

that will divert 12,000 million cubic meters of water each year from the Mekong (about

four per cent of its flow).

No-one knows how all these will affect Cambodia. For instance, the Yali Falls dam

in Vietnam, on the Cambodian border, had no downstream impacts studied even though

it cut off 10 per cent of the Sesan river's flow through Ratanakiri and Stung Treng.

Similarly, for all the millions of dollars being poured into studies to develop the

Tonle Sap - by UNDP/MRC, UNESCO, ADB, the World Bank and others - none mention

what affect regional and local dams might have on the Great Lake.

Vice Chairman of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, Khy Taing Lim, acknowledges

this "weakness" within the MRC. "It's a big concern. [Vietnam, Laos

and Thailand] just need to notify us [of their plans].

"We want to know the downstream impacts. I don't know! People always underestimate

the [cumulative] impacts of even small dams."

Taing Lim has faith in "regional cooperation" and the "Mekong spirit".

"Otherwise I would believe that China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand could build

what they want and we would have nothing. I could never believe that they would want

to kill Cambodia when they know all the facts."

He says planned dams in Kratie, Ratanakiri and Koh Kong will provide lots of foreign

income from Thailand. "We have the water, we have the market. When we export,

we'll have the money, and we'll use that to develop the country."

Critics say however that Thailand cannot try to sustain its escalating energy demands.

Cheaper and more efficient alternatives to hydropower - including energy efficiencies

- must be considered, they say, and if they are, Laos and Cambodia would be left

with surplus, expensive hydropower and high debt.

Dam critic Touch Seng Tana, the director of the Freshwater Fisheries Project of the

Ministry of Agriculture, says: "In five years even solar power might be cheaper

than hydro. If Thailand changes its mind, we will die!

"Who will referee [these contracts]? Do they think Thailand will always pay?

Will Vietnam?"

To help build the dams, the ADB and MRC want private investment - $230 billion within

the region. Cambodia has no money; all it can offer in partnership is its rivers

and water.

There are many engineering firms - particularly from Thailand, Korea, Australia,

Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia - keen to export what has become a dead

industry in their home countries.

However, a Cambodian Development Council official told the Post that a recent visit

by a high-powered Korean business delegation, including Hyundai and Daewoo, was not

a successful one. "[The Koreans] didn't invest a cent," he said, "nor

are they likely to in the near future. They said Cambodia is not yet ready."

Cambodia should borrow for dam infrastructure rather than wait for aid handouts,

even on "soft" terms, "otherwise it will always be a beggar,"

says Koji Kanzaki, general manager of Japan's Maeda engineering.

Taing Lim says it is preferable that dam building money comes from grant aid "but

this is not possible. We need to borrow from [international] banks." Though

risky, hydropower projects are always profitable if well-managed, he says.

Cambodia's dams might all be built under the "new" build-operate-transfer

(BOT) formula, where private companies build, take the profits for 25 or 30 years,

then give the project back to the Government.

Local laws should be made to protect and guarantee these investors. "We have

to share the risk with them," Taing Lim says.

In rebuttal, the BOT argument - that private investment doesn't drain the public

purse, and that profit-conscious companies will ensure dams are run efficiently -

"is a remarkably simple and seductive one," writes Charlie Pahlman, a rural

development worker in Laos, in Bangkok-based environmental NGO Terra's Watershed


The real drive behind BOT, Pahl-man says, is that international banks like the ADB

don't have enough money to meet what they say is necessary development.

"Privatization... becomes a new mantle for the 'trickle-down theory,' despite

overwhelming evidence that it does not work, and that the manifestation of it has

in fact contributed to widening the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as

exacerbating environmental degradation," Pahl-man says.

Critics add that once the dam is returned to the Government, the bulk of the profits

are likely to have been sucked away, and maintenance costs will be crippling.

Tana, of the Fisheries Department, says: "Cambodia will be the only country

to lose. I want to ask the ADB and the MRC, with all the problems that have happened

around the world, why are you pushing [dams] here?"

THOUGH ten dams are planned to produce electricity for local use, Phnom Penh already

has enough power.

Beacon Hill is going to build a 60 megawatt thermal plant - at $75m, the biggest

US investment in Cambodia. A 120 megawatt plant is planned for Kompong Som; and more

still in Battambang (Anglo-Cambodia Holdings); Siem Reap (YTL); Kompong Som again

(Ariston); and a local company in Kompong Cham.

Even Phnom Penh's newest thermal plants paid for by the World Bank and the ADB -

both of whom are pushing hydropower - are only likely to be used to service

peak demand. The MRC, another pushing hydro, says Cambodia has enough power through

to the year 2000.

"Unless there is an extreme explosion [of demand], Cambodia doesn't need the

[domestic] hydro-dams," says a Western advisor to the Energy Ministry.

"All it proves is that one, there is no planning [for hydro] within the ministries;

two, that there's a lot of money involved; and three, that people who should, don't

know what they're talking about."

Taing Lim is persuasive in arguing that dam power is needed for the future "[and]

we need to start building tomorrow" as a clean, economical and ecological solution

to Cambodia's development.

"Should we always live like this? No televisions? No electricity? Should we

live on an island away from civilization? [No], we have to live in this world..."

Taing Lim says that hydropower will encourage industry - therefore employment, taxes,

and profit.

"This is inevitable," he says, foreseeing corridors of industrial development

stretching up from Kompong Som to Phnom Penh and beyond, driven by hydropower.

Tana says that while the need for industrial development "is a good idea, how

do you develop industries when you're losing your natural resources, like timber

and fish?"

The Western advisor says: "[Dams] have notoriously had huge cost overruns and

hold-ups. Laos is finding this out at the moment.

"It's very simplistic to say 'When we have hydropower, industry will come.'

Its a big risk to base all your investment decisions on dams.

"Everyone is talking about developing Cambodia with hydro. But what about capital

maintenance and debt loading, and all the environmental and social costs? You're

also looking at economic collapse if it all goes wrong," he says.

AS to the environmental and social costs, advocates maintain new technologies in

dam construction have been developed to mitigate these problems, and that lessons

have been learned from experiences elsewhere.

Taing Lim says scientists "cannot answer us yet" about the impact Cambodian

dams will have on fisheries, forestry and erosion. More research is needed.

He says that dams can provide stored water for irrigation to promote efficient agriculture,

and also regulate river flows to stop damaging wet-season floods and dry-season droughts.

"[And] why don't people talk about the impacts of oil [burning plants], or nuclear?

Why don't they talk about pollution and greenhouse gas emissions?

"[Cambodia] is a late-comer to hydropower, so we can learn from experiences

around the world - some very sad and negative experiences - and new technologies.

We know about the impacts. When we talk about development, we also talk about the

environmental impacts," he says.

He says critics "are completely wrong" claiming that an urban elite will

benefit from hydro-power at the expense of rural poor.

"We can't forget the people living in the reservoir [areas]," he says.

"We want to have these people participating. We want to tell them that these

projects are their projects... Only by this will we succeed.

"We have plans for small, suitable micro-hydropower projects for the countryside

too. It's a big dream [of mine] to produce electricity for the rural areas, to keep

people there and raise their standards of living."

Tana however does not believe that local communities will have any say in what is

going to happen. Even now, there are less than a handful of NGOs aware of the planned

dams, and are willing to talk to villagers who are going to be affected.

"Villagers think that having electricity is a good idea, until they're told

their houses will be under ten meters of water," said one local NGO worker.

According to Environment Minister Mok Mareth, who is also a vice chair of the Cambodian

National Mekong Committee: "I've always said that I am concerned about the mainstream

[Sambor] dam.

"But why I support the first phase of Sambor is that we must have [information]

about whether this dam will be positive or negative for development."

Mareth says he also knows that the "medium-sized" dams will have negative

impacts "but I also know they might help the environment too," by regulating

flooding and erosion. Dam reservoirs "might be a unique way" of helping

areas damaged by deforestation to recover, he says.

Mareth says the ADB-driven Sesan development in Ratanakiri "is also not a bad

idea. I know it will affect the area's national park, but not all of it. We can use

the stored water to protect the forest, so I am not opposed to the lower Sesan dam."

Tana acknowledges that at least one dam, Kamchay, might potentially be able to profit

more than it would destroy.

But for the others "they argue for flood control," Tana says. "Cambodia

has survived thousands of years with the wetlands and with the natural ebb and flow

of the rivers.

"It is our history: people concentrate around the wetlands and rivers for the

fish, then they grow rice and work the land. These systems are linked together...

if that link is cut, the ecosystem will be destroyed.

"You can travel anywhere and see houses on stilts. This is how the people live

with the natural floods.

"Flood control would be a disaster for Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge tried to control

it too. It is a nonsense.

"The engineers should answer to the people. The Government should answer to

the people. Why did Kom-pong Speu [where the Prek Thnot dam is planned] flood? Because

of deforestation in the surrounding hills, it wasn't the [fault of the] Mekong or

the Tonle Sap or other rivers!

"The Mekong is not a dangerous river. And the Tonle Sap is a natural reservoir

to catch floodwater. Look at history. The reason why the [Angkor] barays didn't work

was because people [knew to] follow nature."

Irrigation "is a good idea, I have no objection to this. But again I say please

be careful". Small canals and community "micro-dams" are now being

used to draw water and "organic mud", rich in natural minerals and phosphates,

he says. "These are the ideas of people following the [natural] system."

"Hydro-technology is very old. In the US the dam era is over because of the

ecological crisis," Tana says.

Tana - as perhaps Cambodia's foremost expert on a national fishery worth the equivalent

of $100 million a year - says the Mekong's migratory fish species will become extinct

if the dams go ahead.

He says Cambodia survives on its fisheries. 80 per cent of the King-dom's protein

intake is provided by fish, and dams will destroy this natural resource, he says.

"Fish ladders don't work. Catfish can't jump. One day after the [Sambor] dam

is built, the fish industry will being starving," he says.

"No-one is saying Cambodia shouldn't develop its own resources. But we don't

want to follow Thailand. They only developed because of the Vietnam war, not from

dams. Dams have only hurt Thailand.

"I'm concerned for the future," he says. "As long as we retain the

water flow then we can restock fisheries and look at a prosperous future.

"If someone can prove to me that the costs of losing our fish, of the ecological

destruction, of the debt all this will bring, is all less than the benefits, then

I will be first to applaud. I would say 'build it, build this dam'.

"But if not, then I won't believe."

The plans on the drawing board

The map above shows 17 dams considered as "priorities" by either the Mekong

River Commission (MRC), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and/or the Royal Government.

However, for the past 30 or more years, dams have been studied for almost every river

in Cambodia.

  • Sambor. Located where the Prek Kampi meets the Mekong, north of Kratie. 30km

    wide, 35 meters high, costing $4 billion. It will flood 800 square kilometers and

    generate 3,300 MW of power to be sold to Thailand. Sambor is No. 3 priority of the

    MRC's nine mainstream dams. Though the MRC says Sambor will displace over 5,000 people

    (based on a 1969 study), local sources say there are now 60,000 people living along

    this stretch of river. Both the French and the World Bank are considering funding

    an 18-month, $910,000 pre-feasibility study. Cambodia has proposed a smaller alternative

    project - a $700 million, 20km canal running along the riverbank - but the MRC is

    pushing the larger scheme.

  • Sekong/Sesan Basin. ADB funding a $2.5 million tri-country study with France,

    with ADB to also likely to help finance the dam building. Thirty-nine dams on three

    rivers (including 13 on the Srepok, under the MRC) - rivers which when join at Stung

    Treng form the Mekong's biggest tributary (16 per cent of its flow). ADB project

    says dams will produce 3,200 MW of power destined for Thailand. This project is already

    underway: one dam (Yali Falls) has already been built in Vietnam; one in Laos (Se

    Kaman) - the biggest rockfill dam in Southeast Asia - is now being built.

  • Stung Menam. Three dams on the Thai border in Koh Kong. Cost: $800 million. Planned

    to generate 440 MW of power to be sold to Thailand. Stored water to go to Thailand

    for irrigation. Memorandum of Understanding already signed between Cambodia and Thailand.

    Thai company MDX going to undertake the study.

  • Prek Thnot. In Kompong Speu, flowing into the Bassac south of Phnom Penh. Dam

    10km long, 28.5 meters high, flood 256 sq kms of land and displace 15,000 people.

    It will cost $200m, produce 18 MW and irrigate 70,000 hectares. One of three top

    priorities; the MRC's 1997 work program has called for a $3.235m study. Japan's Maeda

    Corp - which first began work on the dam in 1969 - have expressed interest (see story).

  • Stung Chinit. In Kompong Thom, flowing into the Tonle Sap. 4.5 MW, irrigating

    25,400 hectares. One km long, 22 meters high. Likely to store 500m cubic meters of

    water, but no study yet on the number of people it would displace. As of August 1996,

    the ADB was selecting consultants.

  • Stung Battambang. One of three dams, and the biggest (50 MW, irrigate 50,000

    ha) in Battambang; others on the Stung Mongkol Borey and the Stung Sangke. The World

    Bank understood to have expressed interest, though security an issue; one of the

    CNMC's top priorities.

  • Kamchay. On the Stung Kaoh Sla flowing past Kampot to the sea. 120 MW, no studies

    on community impacts. Problems encountered over 100 per cent funding from a Canadian

    consortium, but talks now being held with the ADB and the World Bank.

  • Stung Sen. Flowing from Preah Vihear through Kompong Thom to the Tonle Sap. Dam

    stats: 2.7km long; 38m high; 40 MW; irrigate 130,000 hectares of land. No data on

    exact reservoir size (though possibly more than three billion cubic meters), nor

    on the number of people affected and the importance of fisheries. Second phase priority

    to be completed after Chinit, Battambang and Prek Thnot.

  • Pursat. Another "second phase" priority: five dams, 92 MW, 65,000 ha

    of irrigated land.

And the players with the money

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), the UNDP/Mekong River Commission (MRC), ASEAN and

the Royal Government all consider the Mekong River a "corridor of commerce".

There are now three forums, and six international "capital funds" - including

Japanese and Thai initiatives - set up to invest in Mekong regional projects.

Critics say that the concept of "Mekong" as being a "complex and delicate

natural ecosystem upon which the majority of the region's communities rely is being


The ADB has always aggressively lent money for energy development (32 per cent of

its lending, or $1.8 billion, in 1995 was for energy projects), all to promote industrial

growth in developing countries. An ADB-commissioned 1994 study, endorsed by each

government in the region, calls for hydro-dams as the most environmentally benign

solution to projected energy demands.

Australian NGO AidWATCH and the Manila-based working group on the ADB say the bank

has subverted public participation, and failed to study the cumulative impacts on

water flow, agriculture and fisheries of so many dams.

Terra, a Bangkok-based NGO working with local communities, says: "In allowing

government to avoid talking to their own citizens about their development needs and

priorities, and pitting one Mekong country against another in competition for donor

funds and private investment, these regional forums risk undermining democratic development."

Within the Royal Government, there seems much confusion. Officials say that large-scale

hydro-projects are a priority, but no-one yet knows, or is saying, exactly how much

income is likely to flow from them.

At the Tokyo Consultative Group meeting, for instance, there was no mention of what

income Cambodia might be expecting from hydropower in the future.

In Phnom Penh, the Ministry of Planning works with the ADB. The Ministry of Foreign

Affairs talks to ASEAN. The Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC) is under the

MRC. The Ministry of Public Works has signed off on Stung Menam. The Ministry of

Energy has Kamchay on its books; the Ministry of Agriculture has Stung Chinit. The

Ministry of Rural Development sees it has a mandate to be involved too.

When dam builders pledge to work within national laws, critics are skeptical, pointing

out that Cambodia is poorly organized and, as yet, has no such relevant laws.


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