Reposted from The New York Times
By Simon Marks
KAMPOT PROVINCE, CAMBODIA — Ever since she was a child, Bun Thavry and her family have ventured into the nearby hills above the Toek Chhou river in Kampot Province to chop down bamboo plants to weave into baskets.
But after the Chinese company Sinohydro, one of the world’s largest construction companies, started work on the 193-megawatt Kamchay Dam in 2007, access to the countryside surrounding this tranquil town has been restricted. Mrs. Thavry’s husband, Kim Sopha, 39, like hundreds of others in nearby villages, must now travel about 10 kilometers, or 6 miles, beyond the dam site to collect the bamboo.
“Before, all you needed was a bicycle and a knife,” Mrs. Thavry, a 32-year-old mother of two, said recently as she perched on a small stool outside her wooden home near the riverbank. “But it’s completely different now.”
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Today, villagers must take a truck and a boat to arrive at an unrestricted area where bamboo plants grow. Mrs. Thavry’s husband sometimes spends a week at a time in the forest to maximize his pickings and reduce travel expenses.
Downstream from the Kamchay Dam, inaugurated last month by Prime Minister Hun Sen, giant boulders bake in the sun where river waters once flowed. Owners of riverfront restaurants complain that business has fallen now that there is often no water to attract customers who might also enjoy a swim.
Cambodia’s economy grew 6.5 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. To keep up with demand, the government wants to increase its domestic energy production from less than 1,000 megawatts currently to more than 10,000 megawatts through the construction of more than 20 hydropower dams all over the country.
Like Laos, which has 10 dams under construction and 25 more planned, Cambodia wants to sell to other countries a portion of the electricity generated from its new dams. The government has also said it wants to increase the domestic supply as a way to reduce dependence on imports, to lower energy costs at home and to create more jobs.
“The expected benefits of these projects are huge, including cheap electricity, new job and business opportunities, ‘greener’ energy and wider energy source diversity,” Maria Patrikainen, an analyst based in London for IHS Global, said by e-mail.
Ms. Patrikainen and environmentalists also say, however, that the dams would do more harm than good, and that situations like those being played out in Kampot Province could soon be repeated millions of times over, affecting the livelihoods of families like the Thavrys.
The most worrisome threat posed by the dams, some environmentalists say, is to food security for the rural population of Cambodia, people who depend heavily on fish as a source of protein.
“Large dams disrupt the ecosystems of rivers, block vital fish migration routes and stop nutrient-rich sediment from flowing downstream to the country’s riverbank gardens and rice fields,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, an organization based in the United States, said by e-mail from Bangkok. “Their reservoirs also often lead to the displacement of large numbers of people and the clearing of the country’s forests.”
Large dams, she said, “can destroy livelihoods and food security, exacerbate poverty and lead to human rights violations.
“While each project proposed in Cambodia comes with a different set of impacts, large dams are likely to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, increase malnutrition levels and lead to an environmentally unsustainable future,” she said.
Most of the attention has been focused on the proposed 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi Dam in Laos, the first dam planned for the lower Mekong River, which runs through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. But environmentalists assert that dams planned farther downstream on some of the Mekong’s major tributaries in Cambodia would be just as damaging.
The state-owned Électricité du Vietnam is due to start work next year on a dam on the Sesan River, one of the largest Mekong tributaries in Stung Treng Province, in northeastern Cambodia.
In the next three years, work is expected to begin on two more Chinese-built dams in Pursat Province, on the border with Thailand, and on a project on the Tatai River in Koh Kong Province.
Environmentalists say these dams, especially those with links to the Mekong, would have serious consequences for local fisheries and would prevent the flow of the nutrient-rich sediment that travels through to the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is where 40 percent of Vietnam’s rice stock is grown, where the majority of its fish is caught and where 17 million people live, according to the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organization with representation from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
“Cambodia is possibly globally the country that is the most reliant on wild-capture fisheries for food security of its 13-plus million population,” Marc Goichot, a hydropower specialist from the WWF’s greater Mekong program, wrote in an e-mail from Vientiane, Laos. “A significant part of those wild fish are migratory species,” he said, and no system for fish passage through large dams has proven effective in similar cases.
To mitigate the negative effects on rural communities, consulting firms and government officials have in the past suggested ideas like getting villagers to switch their eating habits from fish to the abundant supply of rabbits in the northeast of the country. The introduction of boat tours where dams have been built to generate revenue from tourism has also been suggested.
But environmentalists say Cambodia should think about scrapping the dams altogether for technologies like solar power, gasification and co-generation, a process in which heat generated from power plants is captured and converted to energy.
Observers of hydropower development in the region also say that dam projects should be subject to strict environmental and social assessments.
“At present, there does not seem to be an appetite for best practice development, especially amongst the Chinese-developed dams in the Cardamom Mountains and elsewhere,” said David Blake, a doctoral candidate in the school of international development at the University of East Anglia, England, who has studied the development of hydropower dams in Southeast Asia.
One way that locals can be included in the economic benefits that hydropower dams bring, he said by e-mail, is through profit-sharing programs like those in Canada, where, after decades of rampant dam building, the aboriginal First Nation people have started to be paid an income from hydropower revenue.
Unlike dams planned for most of the region’s rivers, the Xayaburi Dam in Laos must undergo proper risk assessment under a 1996 pact between countries in the Mekong River Commission, which requires them to agree on all dam projects on the lower Mekong. China has already built four mainstream dams on the upper Mekong, already reducing the amount of sediment flowing downstream, environmentalists say.
Last month delegates from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia met in Siem Reap and decided to postpone the construction of the Xayaburi Dam until further studies could be done on its environmental and social effects.
The decision was based largely on findings in a 2010 report for the Mekong commission, which was carried out by the International Center for Environmental Management, a consulting firm based in Melbourne.
The report said the two hydropower dams planned for the mainstream Mekong in Cambodia would be enough to generate revenue of $1.2 billion for the government, or half of country’s entire annual budget for 2012.
The losses, however, could be far greater, it cautioned. If all the proposed dams on the mainstream Mekong go ahead, the report estimates, fisheries in the Mekong commission countries will lose $476 million a year in revenue.
Fish productivity, it said, would shrink by as much as 880,000 tons, or 42 percent of the total catch recorded in 2000. Fifty-four percent of all riverbank gardens on the Mekong River would be lost as agricultural land is flooded to create reservoirs or taken over for transmission lines, the report said. The transportation of sediment downstream would be reduced, which means the nutrients that fertilize the flood plains around the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, would be reduced by half. And 106,942 people stand to be evicted from their homes.
Still, he dams will give an already fast-growing region low-cost electricity, new jobs and renewable energy.
The Kamchay Dam, for example, will provide a new source of electricity to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, as well as the southern provinces of Kampot and Preah Sihanouk, all of which experience regular blackouts.
But observers say weaknesses in the region, like a lack of dispute-resolution mechanisms, are making it harder to arrive at ways that will avoid some of the more harmful consequences.
“In my view the question is not so much about whether Cambodia and other Mekong countries should not seek to increase their hydropower activism, but how they can cooperate more effectively with each other in order to manage their common water resources more equitably,” said Ms. Patrikainen, at IHS Global said.
As for the Kamchay Dam in Kampot Province, there were few measures put in place to make sure that the dam was an equitable solution for everyone involved.
“As this project was built in a protected park, without adequate impact studies or meaningful consultation with affected communities, it places the country at risk that this process may be repeated,” Ms. Trandem from International Rivers said.
Mrs. Thavry, the bamboo basket weaver, said she was not consulted before construction of the dam. If she had been, she said, she would have asked to be compensated for the weekly $15 journey her husband now has to make into the forest so that she can earn $100 a week selling her baskets.
“The electricity will flow,” she said, “but it has destroyed my ability to get bamboo.”
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