Cat Barton spoke to Estrella Estoria, regional program officer of Oxfam America, about Vietnam's proposal to build several hydroelectric dams on the Tonle Sesan in northeast Cambodia. The electricity generated would go to Vietnam, which would sell power back to Cambodia, and leave Cambodians shouldering the dams' environmental consequences.
How will the proposed dams affect rural Cambodians living in the area?
Generally, marginalized people, small fishermen, small farmers, indigenous peoples and women who are natural-resource-dependent are the most affected groups when large-scale hydropower dams are built. These marginalized people are the cost-bearers of this type of development. These costs take a variety of forms: loss of income base, displacement, destroyed culture and community cohesiveness, destroyed river ecosystem and its surroundings and damage to river-bank farmers dependent on changes in the river's hydrological cycle.
Hydropower damming without proper consideration for, and the participation of, communities dependent upon the river's natural resources can have devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of rural Cambodians, as can be seen in the case of the Sesan River.
Will there be cheaper and more readily available electricity in rural areas if the dams are built?
Certainly. It would be an advantage to the rural communities. They would be able to realize opportunities to develop local economies and share in the benefit of this kind of development
What percentage of people living in the areas around the Sesan river currently have access to electricity?
According to the information of 3SPN, a local NGO based in Ratanakkiri province, no one on the communities situated along Sesan river has access to electricity; rather they rely on generators, car batteries and solar batteries for their electrical needs. Electricity is neither a priority nor a necessity for communities that are situated along the Se San.
Is there concern about the potential environmental impact of the dam projects? Are there examples of environmental damage as a result of similar projects?
There are very often potential costs or risks inherent in large-scale infrastructure development. The critical thing in any of these developments is ensuring that affected communities are given real opportunities to participate in the process. It is only then that they, too, are able to bring an understanding of the costs to the table.
If these costs are not properly known, how can they be balanced against benefits? For affected communities to be included in the process of decision-making, they must have access to the right information, they need to be able raise their interests.
Will the dams bring any economic benefit to Cambodia?
Dams can potentially bring economic benefits but there are considerable costs and risks associated as well. Several studies have shown this and the WCD (World Commission on Dams) comprehensive report shows this. Damming may pose large threats to the livelihoods and economies of many Cambodians as seen in the case of the Yali Falls dam and other dams being built upstream of northeastern Cambodia.
Do hydro electric dams pose an environmental risk to Cambodia? Is the risk worth the benefit?
In Cambodia, fisheries are a major source of dietary protein and income for a great portion of the country's population. They are important for food security and local economies.
Yet dams are often attributed with a serious decline in fish catches and species due to changes in the water's flow and quality. Natural water flow patterns (like dry and rainy season) trigger fish migration, but dams often create abnormal patterns. Riverbank erosion increases turbidity in the water and fills deep water pools, places where fish seek refuge in the dry season.
All of these changes could have a devastating, and often irreversible, impact on fisheries and the environment. Addressing these risks through proper and rigorous social and environmental impact assessments would be critical.