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?
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
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,
"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
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
"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
- 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.