A long-anticipated hydroelectric dam in Stung Treng province is set for completion in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on his personal Facebook page, touting the contentious project’s lack of societal and environmental repercussions, a claim environmentalists quickly rebutted.
During a visit to Beijing before a summit on China’s Belt and Road initiative, the premier discussed the 400-mega- watt Lower Sesan 2 dam with Cao Peixi, chairman of China Huaneng Group, the Chinese company developing the project, according to the Saturday post. The cost of construction, in conjunction with Kith Meng’s Royal Group, was estimated at more than $870 million in 2013.
“In September, the company will block the dam and connect it to the electricity network,” the post said. “This investment project will contribute to developing the economy and society and will not impact natural resources or the environment.”
In response, however, Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director of NGO International Rivers, said the announcement was misleading.
The dam is expected to displace 5,000 people and significantly disturb the fisheries upon which millions of people rely.
“The Lower Sesan 2 dam is predicted to have major environmental impacts, threatening local ecosystems and people’s food security in Cambodia as well as in neighbouring countries,” she said in an email.
The dam “blocks both the Sesan and Srepok rivers, which are critical channels for migratory fish species from the Mekong River traveling to spawning grounds upstream,” she said “It is expected to deplete fish stocks in the Lower Mekong Basin by nearly a tenth. “This alone is a huge environmental impact,” she said.
She also cited predicted changes to water flow that would upset the ecosystem and agricultural development as far south as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Puth Khoeun, 38, a village representative in Sesan district’s Srekor commune, described the announcement as a ruse to hide the problems the dam will create.
“They are the liars. They are destroying the national resources in this area,” he said. “The government officials—they are thinking only of money. They do not think of our pain.”
Among thousands of families evicted from the area to make way for the flooding of the dam’s reservoir, Mr. Khoeun said about 100 had rejected government compensation in land and cash and had remained there.
“If they block the dam, we will lose everything, including our ancestors’ graves,” he said. “We know about the development of society, but the government must consider our suffering.”
And while economists say the dam does have potential to cut excessive electricity costs in Cambodia, they say the resolution is not so cut and dry.
“Cambodia certainly needs to try and produce the cost of its electricity, which currently is extremely high compared to its neighbors, and it’s a source of disadvantage,” especially in terms of competitive manufacturing costs, said Jayant Menon, lead economist at an Asian Development Bank regional office. “Hydropower is a source of relatively cheap electricity.”
The dam will reduce Cambodia’s heavy reliance on imported electricity, said Miguel Chanco, lead regional analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Whether or not the new dam will significantly improve access to electricity is another matter altogether.”
Access to electricity may not expand with the new dam, and Cambodia still needs to minimize energy losses during transmission and distribution, an area where it lags behind other countries in the Asean region, he said. Meanwhile, “there will be environmental consequences, and these need to be mitigated,” Mr. Menon said. “The Cambodian government needs to work with the project developers to ensure that safeguards are put in place and that the environmental consequences are minimized.”
According to Ms. Harris, there was little hope of that happening. “Neither the project developers nor the Cambodian government have released information showing that these impacts can be effectively mitigated,” she said. “Investment in renewable energy, including decentralized and off-grid solutions have potential to better meet local needs of people living in rural areas, yet these options are given little weight in national energy planning.”