Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Users cry foul over electricity

Users cry foul over electricity

Users cry foul over electricity

MORE than two years after Phnom Penh's electricity distribution was consolidated

under a single supplier, many residents have complained of sharply higher costs and

poor service from Electricite du Cambodge (EdC).

The city's poorest residents, meanwhile, say they cannot get connected and are forced

to rely on expensive middlemen.

EdC took over the city's supply of electricity under a project backed by the World

Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and bilateral donors to create a single integrated

system that has more than doubled customer numbers to around 110,000.

Under the old system, many of the city's residents and businesses purchased electricity

from a network of small-scale local producers, often at high prices and with varying

degrees of reliability.

Yet critics of the project argue that the consolidation has ignored the rights of

electricity consumers.

John Lowrie of the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights suggested that the regulatory

body - which starts work next month - was unlikely to solve consumers' problems.

He advocated a "rights-based development" approach to donor funded power

projects.

"Consumers' rights aren't well represented and there is a question over how

well a regulator will work," he said of the new regulatory body, the Electricity

Authority of Cambodia (EAC).

Prom Sothy, known as Christine, lives with her family of six on rented land in central

Phnom Penh. Since she was connected to EdC in 1999 her power costs have skyrocketed.

Her simple wooden home has three fluorescent lights, two electric fans, and a television

set. She also owns a refrigerator, but cannot afford to run it. Independent experts

contacted by the Post said that typically her electricity consumption should be between

30 and 50 kilowatt hours(Kwh) a month. Since connecting to EdC, her bills have shown

a consumption range of between 120 Kwh and 220 Kwh.

"It was much better before [EdC took over supply] because I was never charged

for more than 30 Kwh a month," she said.

It was meant to be different: under the pricing structure regulations, EdC is meant

to provide electricity to low-end users at a cost of 350 riel per Kwh.

Unlike Christine, Meas Sophal and her neighbors have to buy electricity through third

party wholesalers, who charge between 1,000 and 2,000 riels per Kwh, well above even

the expatriate rate of 850 ($0.21) riel per Kwh.

Despite being less than 200 meters from the nearest EdC power line, Sophal said she

pays almost three times the official rate to power her small shop, located in the

squatter area next to the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel. Her electricity bill is 40 percent

higher than it was in 1999.

"It's too expensive," she said of her 1,000 riel per Kwh charge. "Everyone

here says it's too much."

A 1998 study by UN Habitat found that 80 percent of Phnom Penh's squatter population

relied on intermediaries for electricity. UN Habitat's Peter Swan said that figure

probably had not changed.

"The poor don't have access to EdC power for a number of reasons," he said.

"Often they cannot read the forms or come up with the bond money."

Dr Ty Norin, chairman of EAC, says it will have the power to penalize those suppliers

across the country which overcharge their customers or do not meet adequate service

standards. He says he is unaware of the existence of such middlemen.

"This cannot be," he said. "It is illegal. If people ask for a connection

then EdC must connect them."

When the Post asked EdC about the lack of cheap power for the city's poorest people,

the company's customer service department described the well-established squatter

areas as "non-permanent" and therefore outside the budget for grid extension.

EdC said its policy was that it did not take responsibility for distribution beyond

the distribution board.

Customer service officials also claimed that wholesalers had been eliminated, and

that those not covered by the distribution network had the option of banding in groups

of 30 to receive power as a collective. In Sophal's area few people had heard of

the "collective group" system.

Wholesaler Sok Poew has supplied a number of areas on the outskirts of the city since

1997. He buys around 20,000 Kwh per month at 550 riel per Kwh, which he sells to

1,000 customers. He said that EdC had never informed him that his business was illegal.

"They just come at the end of the month and collect the money," he said.

Back at home, Christine says things have become worse under EdC; despite the fact

that the private supplier charged more per unit of power than EdC, her overall bill

had been lower then. Most of her neighbors have seen their recorded usage shoot up

too. They all claim that both the number of appliances they own and their use has

not changed.

When she used small suppliers, Christine had few problems.

"[The supplier] always came to the house and I could deal with him in person,"

she said.

After months of consistently higher charges, Christine took her complaint to EdC's

customer service office. It took four trips before a field officer finally visited

her house: he demanded 15,000 riels to check her meter and the wiring.

For a further $50 he agreed to install a $5 meter in her home allowing her to monitor

her electricity use. He also replaced switches and some "poor quality"

wiring.

An EdC official disassociated the company from such practices, saying that it was

a "private" arrangement between the employee and the customer. Dr Norin

acknowledged that some EdC representatives charged unofficial fees and gave inappropriate

advice.

"When EdC uses so many hundreds of people, some of them will be crazy. However

the customer should just write down their names and tell us," he said.

Christine, like many in Phnom Penh, is convinced that her meter is running too fast.

After six weeks her private meter reads just 80 Kwh, but other customers who have

had meters fitted said that EdC would not accept as evidence the readings from home

meters, even those the company had calibrated and installed itself.

Dr Norin said that only one in 10,000 meters was faulty; this made it an unlikely

explanation for high bills.

"When our office is open people will be able to bring these complaints to us,"

he said.

Lowrie said that that donors should incorporate consumer councils into the upcoming

rural electrification plan. Consumer councils, he said, would allow people like Christine

and her neighbors to make independent representations to the country's power suppliers.

Meanwhile Christine is no closer to resolving her case with EdC and is now under

threat of having her supply cut.

"I have no problem paying if I use electricity, but how can I pay?" she

said. "This is just theft."

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