For the 11,000 villagers along the Srepok River in northeastern Cambodia, life is about fish. They eat fish. They sell fish.
But one day soon—if Vietnam completes six hydropower dams now planned or under construction along the river—there may not be enough fish.
Perhaps they can eat rabbits instead.
That, at least, was one solution offered by SWECO Groner, a consulting firm that recently completed an environmental impact assessment of the downstream effects of the proposed dams across the border, to be built by state-run Electricity of Vietnam.
Demand for electricity in Cambodia is growing 15 to 20 percent a year, according to Suy Sem, Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy. And already, the cost of electricity in Cambodia is among the highest in the region.
But the SWECO study found that for the proposed Srepok River dams, the cost of development will be high.
The dams will require people in 21 affected villages in Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces—many of them subsistence farmers and ethnic minorities—to radically change their economy, culture and diet, according to the study, which was published in November.
People along the river get 90 percent of their protein from fish, SWECO Groner found.
The likely reductions in fish catches as a result of the dams present a grave problem because people have few other sources of protein.
Hunting in the area is tightly regulated and domestic animals are generally sold for cash rather than eaten. So the study recommended as a possible mitigation measure the introduction of a new “fast-growing species,” like rabbits.
Not everyone is taken with the proposal.
The very idea, said Kim Sangha, the Ratanakkiri coordinator of the 3S Protection Network, which supports communities along the Srepok, “looked like a mockery.”
Tep Bunnarith, executive director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association, said some people catch wild rabbits in the forest, but the notion of farming rabbits for food was unheard of.
“It’s impossible to ask them to do that,” he said, because the notion is foreign to the villagers’ lifestyles.
“We are worried about fish production in the river in the future, as a result of the planned hydropower development scheme,” Dag Berge, a senior research scientist at Norwegian Institute for Water Research, which helped SWECO Groner with the environmental impact assessment, wrote in an e-mail from Oslo.
“Electricity of Vietnam is very much aware of this,” he added, “and they will take several mitigation measures to avoid negative impacts.”
Grainne Ryder, the policy director of Probe International, a Canadian environmental advocacy group, said the report’s analysis of downstream economic effects in Cambodia was “deficient.” She also claimed that SWECO Groner should have been disqualified from completing the EIA because of conflicting business interests.
“It works for the project proponent, EVN, and has a direct commercial interest in seeing hydro dams go forward and has won a string of contracts to plan, design, and help build dams for EVN,” she claimed in an e-mail.
Dag Berge denied that SWECO Groner’s business relationships had influenced the study’s findings.
“I can see that it may look a little questionable that SWECO, which is known for its technical design and construction consultancy in connection with hydropower development, now also should do the EIA,” he conceded.
He said a Norwegian company, Statkraft-Groner, was originally contracted by EVN to do the environmental assessment, but that just before the study began, SWECO, a Swedish company, took it over, and renamed it SWECO Groner.
“I can assure that there has been no attempt from anyone to steer my findings and conclusions,” he wrote.
Electricity of Vietnam did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
On Jan 12, Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities, the authors of the environmental study, local villagers and NGOs plan to meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the Srepok River dams.
(Additional reporting Van Roeun)