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
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
"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
When she used small suppliers, Christine had few problems.
"[The supplier] always came to the house and I could deal with him in person,"
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"
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
"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,"
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."