By Heng Pheakdey
Cambodia’s energy security is at risk. Insufficient domestic energy production and poor physical infrastructure cause dependency, accessibility, reliability and affordability issues. The country relies almost entirely on the import of fossil fuel, mainly diesel and heavy oil, for electricity production. Apart from Burma, Cambodia has the lowest electrification rate in the region—only 35 percent of its entire population has access to reliable electricity, while its electricity price is one of the highest in the world.
This situation has serious implications for Cambodia. Firstly, importing fuel causes high energy costs, which in turn reduces the viability of commercial activities, affects the competitiveness of Cambodian products and hinders the country’s economic growth. Secondly, frequent energy disruption and high electricity prices can spur social unrest.
In recent years, a number of protests have already taken place across the country over the high cost of energy and the frequent power outage. In February 2010, for example, more than 200 villagers from two communes in Kandal Stung district staged a protest in front of Kandal provincial headquarters to demand cheaper electricity prices. In May of the same year, more than 1,000 families in Kampong Thom province collectively signed a petition to protest against high electricity prices in their areas. And recently, in June 2012, about 300 people from three villages in Kampong Cham’s Batheay district blocked National Road 6A to protest against the raising of electricity prices. Just one month later, more than 200 villagers in Preah Vihear town thumb-printed a joint complaint to provincial authorities to intervene after their private electricity company raised its price.
The desire for energy for Cambodia is obvious but how to get it remains controversial. With the demand predicted to increase fivefold in the near future, the government has put forward an ambitious plan to boost domestic energy production, mainly through the construction of hydropower and coal power plants, and promises to bring electricity to 70 percent of its population by 2030.
However, activists and environmentalists have expressed their concerns for the social and environmental consequences of such projects. For example, experts have warned that the construction of dams in some places such as Koh Kong and Kratie provinces will greatly affect the rivers’ fish populations and threaten the only remaining habitats of endangered species like the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin and the Siamese crocodile. China-funded hydropower projects, including the recently completed Kamchay dam in Kampot, have also been criticized for the absence of meaningful public consultation and an overall lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
It should be noted that energy security means more than getting adequate energy supply, but also to do so in a sustainable manner.
The European Commission stated in the green paper that “Strategy for energy supply security must be geared to ensuring, for the well-being of its citizens and the proper functioning of the economy, the uninterrupted physical availability of energy products on the market, at a price which is affordable for all consumers while respecting environmental concerns and looking towards sustainable development.”
In the context of Cambodia, hydropower has the potential to offer additional energy to satisfy local demand but at the same time, if not well planned and managed, it can also be a threat to social and environmental sustainability. Therefore, policies to address energy security should be multi-dimensional and must reflect and address local contexts in such a way that solving energy problems will not create new issues in other areas.
This implies active involvement of all relevant stakeholders in the planning and implementation of the policies to ensure that all voices are heard, the process is fair and transparent, the negative impact is minimized, and the benefits are shared especially among the affected people.
Moreover, hydropower alone will not be sufficient to realize long-term energy security for Cambodia. Prioritizing renewable energy such solar power, micro hydropower, biofuel and promoting energy efficiency are the quickest and most effective means to achieve energy security for a developing country such as Cambodia. These off-grid energy projects will not only contribute to sustainable energy development in Cambodia but also significantly improve the livelihoods of the poor rural population.
Heng Pheakdey is a researcher at VU University in Amsterdam.