To meet the burgeoning demand for electricity in Phnom Penh, the government is ready to sacrifice one of Koh Kong province’s rivers to a $40 million Chinese dam, according to a report unveiled Thursday.
The report, prepared by the Rivers Coalition in Cambodia and the American Friends Service Committee, states that the dam will consume the river’s entire dry season flow, denuding its riverbanks of vegetation, eliminating its aquatic life and, in the process, flood 536 hectares of land.
But if done right, the 18 megawatt Kirirom III hydropower dam, scheduled for completion between 2010 and 2011 on the Steung Pongrol river, could also be a model for hydropower development in the region and reasonably accommodate the Sre Ambel district farming community lying in its path, according to the report.
“Around 5,000 villagers in Dang Peng commune will be affected by this dam, which will change the water currents, reduce water quality and land used for fishing in the river,” said Ngy San, Deputy Executive Director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, who presented the report, entitled “Before the Dam,” at a news conference.
Rather than simply sound the alarm, the report seeks to offer advice, he said.
“We are not against the government,” Ngy San said. “Villagers should have transparent information from the developer of the dam …in order to minimize the effects.”
Cambodia as a whole is starved for power. In the next 10 years, demand for electricity may be quintuple the current generation of 212 megawatts, while the government plans to electrify 70 percent of households by 2030. Supplied with 170 megawatts, the flickering lights of Phnom Penh are a signal of the city’s constant 40-megawatt power deficit.
Government officials have resisted conservation measures that could hinder their access to resources, particularly energy—Prime Minister Hun Sen last year referred to the rivers of the Cardamom Mountains as “our battery.”
In Koh Kong province, the government this year approved the construction of two other hydropower dams to generate a total of 584 megawatts. Feasibility studies were also approved in August for two proposed Chinese hydropower dams on the Sre Pok river, which runs through Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces.
There is a right way and a wrong way to go about tapping Cambodia’s rivers for power, according to the report’s authors.
In the particular instance of the Kirirom III, the opportunity exists to create a model dam by observing the report’s recommendations, which include conducting a full environmental impact assessment, adopting sustainable operating and construction guidelines, regulating a minimum water flow from the dam, supplying extra fish and equitably compensating villagers with replacement land.
Uch Saroeun, managing director of the local environmental consultancy SAWAC Consultants for Development, said Thursday his company last week submitted a three-month impact assessment to the dam’s developer, China Electric Power Technology Import Export Corp, for review. However, CETIC Deputy General Manager Wang Hong was traveling in Beijing on Thursday and could not be reached for comment, according to an associate at the company’s Phnom Penh office.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)