Hydro Dam Does Little for Locals, Study Finds

Most families immediately downstream of Cambodia’s first major hydropower dam are worse off than they were before the project, according to a new study by U.K. researchers that urges the government to pay more attention to impacts on local residents as it gears up for a major hydropower push.

Researchers from the University of London, with help from the Cambodia Development Research Institute, last year surveyed families in five villages downstream from the 193-megawatt Kamchay dam in Kampot province’s Kampot district, which started fully operating in 2011.

“Being the first large hydropower project in Cambodia, the Kamchay dam is an important test case that provides insight into post-project impacts and how they have been perceived by the local populations and institutional actors,” the authors write, using actors to refer mostly to NGOs and government agencies.

According to their findings, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Energy Policy, the test case bodes poorly for the country.

“Most of the families are still facing problems in terms of livelihood losses without receiving adequate or any compensation,” they write. “Moreover, many of the benefits from the construction of the dam promised by the builders and the government to the local population during consultation meetings have not been fulfilled.”

The study places much of the blame on a shoddy environmental impact assessment that preceded construction, which failed to lay out detailed measures to mitigate impacts on local residents, and on the fact that the promises were never put in writing.

The local impacts were not all bad. Among the five villages surveyed, a majority of the families in two had earned most of their income growing durian and other fruits. They said they were compensated for their lost crops for the most part, and thought that overall, the dam was a good thing.

But most of the families in the other three villages had relied on collecting bamboo and other products from the forests, which were flooded by the dam’s reservoir.

“Generally speaking, the poorest villagers…who rely heavily on forest products for their livelihoods had the shared perception that the project only brought negative economic impacts in terms of loss of income,” the authors write.

Unlike the fruit farmers, they had no private land to claim so they did not receive compensation.

And while the dam has helped reduce electricity prices elsewhere in Cambodia, none of the families in any of the five villages has felt the benefits, the study says.

Bu Saory, who lives in one of the villages that researchers visited for the latest study, makes a living fashioning bamboo into baskets and other products.

Before the dam was built, she said Tuesday, her search for bamboo involved a 6- or 7-km bicycle ride. Now that those forests have been flooded, she said, she must make a 10- to 20-km trip by motorbike and boat.

“The villagers in the community have gotten no benefit from the Kamchay hydropower dam. There is no electricity and we are worse off because it is harder to find bamboo,” she said. “They have made it hard for us and we have gotten nothing from the dam.”

Ms. Saory said she and other bamboo collectors were left out of the compensation deals and that she believed the government should have at least helped them find other work.

The findings on the Kamchay dam are similar to those of other reports addressing the country’s many agribusiness plantations. While the government has championed the plantations as a way for rural communities to climb out of poverty, all studies on their impacts indicate that local families are invariably left worse off, robbed of their farms and forests in exchange for irregular and poorly paid work with the companies that displaced them.

The latest study comes amid a major government push for more hydropower dams in a bid to bring down electricity prices, which are among the highest in the region. The Kamchay dam was just the first. Of the 18 power projects under construction or consideration for completion by 2020, 12 are dams.

The researchers behind the Kamchay study found that government officials placed much less emphasis on the local impacts of the project than the villagers or NGOs they surveyed, and suggested that this attitude would not change in the upcoming projects. They recommended that local and national interests be given equal weight.

Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina declined to comment by telephone and did not reply to questions sent via email. Som Vichet, who heads Kampot’s mines and energy department, also declined to comment.

Provincial governor Khoy Khun Hour, however, flatly rejected the latest research.

“It is wrong and an exaggeration because there has been no [negative] effect on the villagers’ livelihoods,” he said. “The villagers can go and find bamboo just as they did before.”

Mr. Khun Hour said the dam had put an end to the annual flooding of Kampot City and that the families living downstream had been encouraged to sell groceries and make handicrafts for tourists.

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