Number of people living off fishing on the Mekong, Tonle Sap put at 2 million—twice the MRC’s estimate
Fishery experts and NGOs said yesterday that the Mekong River Commission had underestimated in a new draft report the number of Cambodians who will be affected by 12 hydropower dams that are planned on the Mekong River.
The number will be significantly higher than the MRC report’s estimate that 1 million fisheries-dependent livelihoods are at risk from the dams in Cambodia, they said.
NGOs also questioned why Cambodia’s power sector would need to develop the two Mekong dams planned in the country at such high social costs. Officials however, maintained that the dams were required for Cambodia’s future development.
Om Savath, project manager at fisheries NGO FACT, said he attended a workshop in Laos on the MRC’s draft environmental assessment report last week and noticed the figure of affected livelihoods in Cambodia was unrealistic.
“I don’t believe it. Why do they say only 1 million fishermen?” he said.
Mr Savath said about 2 million people live directly off fishing on the Mekong River and Tonle Sap lake alone, while there were 6 million Cambodians who spend half of the year farming and the other half fishing and another large group fishes for about three months per year.
He added the MRC report’s other apocalyptic assessment that 43 percent of Cambodia’s fisheries could be destroyed by the dams was likely accurate.
“We could calculate one million is too small,” said NGO forum director Chhith Sam Ath, who also attended the MRC workshop on the draft report.
“You go to people along the Mekong. They are all engaged in fishing for their livelihoods,” he said, while pointing to the report’s estimate that 7.6 million people in Cambodia live within a 15-kilometer corridor adjacent to the Mekong—a zone that the MRC qualifies as the dams’ “highest impact area.”
Mr Sam Ath said however that the MRC’s estimates were important “to highlight the impact and to give a signal to all the decision makers in the government, development partners and private sector.”
He also noted the report found that in the coming decades Cambodia would export most of the power generated from the two dams it had planned on the Mekong, adding this export profit did not warrant the large scale loss of fisheries and livelihoods.
“The need for hydropower in Cambodia should be clearly justified and include looking for different options to get power rather than only [Mekong] dams,” he said, while adding that hydropower dams in the Cardamom Mountains, possible domestic oil and gas finds and new energy technology could meet future domestic energy demands.
Bun Narith, deputy director of the energy department of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said the government was nonetheless convinced the Mekong dams were needed to supplement the power supply from hydropower-installations being constructed in the Cardamom Mountains.
“The dams in the Cardamoms Mountains are very small. They will provide only 200 to 300 megawatts of power each but along the Mekong River they will supply up to 400 megawatts or more,” he said.
Mr Narith claimed Cambodia’s future domestic energy needs would increase nearly ten-fold in coming decades.
“In 2024, we need more than 3,500 megawatts of power. Now we need around 400 megawatt,” he said.
The draft MRC report released last week calculated that the dams planned in Cambodia, the 980-megawatt Stung Trek Dam in Stung Treng province and the 2,600-megawatt Sambor Dam in Kratie province, would allow the country to export excess power supply and generate $449 million a year in net power export revenues in the first 20 years.
Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Committee, acknowledged the government would have to give dam developers the right to sell most of the power for export during the first 25 years after dam construction because the dam developers would finance the dams for the government under a “build-operate-transfer” scenario.
“The investment cannot be made from our own money, we think the companies will invest. [Then] for 80, 90 percent the company will take over and they gain from the power export,” he said. “After 20, 30 years the government can take back all the power and have more benefit.”
Carl Middleton, Mekong coordinator for Rivers International, said the MRC draft report showed that, at significant social and environmental cost, Cambodia could receive economic benefits from the dams at a national level.
The question was whether Cambodia could redistribute this economic benefit and sufficiently compensate all those who would be negatively impacted by the Mekong dams.
“Even for this benefit, however, whether the locally affected people and wider regional population would really benefit equitably from the economic growth is doubtful,” Mr Middleton said.
“[I]t will be almost an impossible task to identify, let alone compensate, all of those indirectly affected due to the loss of fisheries and other changes to the river caused by dam construction,” he said.
“How could you compensate every fisherman around Tonle Sap Lake for the proportion of fish lost if the Sambor dam in Kratie Province were constructed?”