Prime Minister Hun Sen joined his Laotian counterpart Thongloun Sisoulith for a visit to the site of the controversial Don Sahong Dam just across the border on Tuesday, remarking that the trip was a reminder of Laos’ commitment to improving the livelihoods of Cambodians.
“I would like to thank Laos’ government for selling cheap electricity to Cambodia, especially to Stung Treng and Preah Vihear provinces,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a ceremony inaugurating the Trapaing Kriel border checkpoint near the dam site.
Activists and communities living downstream from the Don Sahong and other dams being built on the Mekong River in Laos have said they are already feeling the impact: fish dying off, dolphin populations dwindling, and water turning cloudy and causing diarrhea and rashes.
However, Mr. Hun Sen has expressed his approval of the projects, undertaken by Laos despite concerns among other countries reliant on the Mekong, adopting the Laotian government line that they are necessary to meet energy demands.
With much of Stung Treng already buying cheap electricity from Laos, however, environmental consultant Thaim Oudom said Cambodians should be informed about what exactly they should be thankful for, and how the Don Sahong will change electricity access and costs.
“They say that as they build more and more dams, the electricity will be cheaper,” he said. “But it is not clear how cheap.”
Mr. Oudom doubted that the current arrangement—Cambodia buying power from Laos’ main station—would change, as new transmission lines were prohibitively expensive, meaning access would not be significantly expanded.
“They will probably still use the old machines,” he said.
Meanwhile, communities along the Mekong that have for years been protesting against the dam say they are feeling its negative effects.
“Locals are feeling bad because of the dam’s impacts,” said Chum Huot, an environmental activist who plans to visit the dam today, adding that some may move to seek employment elsewhere.
Mr. Oudom said Cambodia should do its own study on the transboundary impacts of the site instead of relying on Laos for its research.
“The government has sufficient human resources and experts,” he said. “They should be allowed to study the dam and present reports so that everyone is appeased.”
(Additional reporting by Aisha Down)