Energy

Counting the Cost of Cambodia’s Hydropower Dams

Hydropower dams have been built at a detrimental cost to Cambodia, contributing to the destruction of fisheries, wetland and wildlife, the author of a new book claims.
Workers on electric pole in Phnom Penh. Picture: Sam
Workers on electric pole in Phnom Penh. Picture: Sam

Cambodia is suffering a huge net loss from building hydroelectric dams as they have destroyed fisheries, wetland and wildlife, an American author said on Sunday at the launch of her book ‘Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and A Vanishing World in Cambodia.’

The last few years have seen the cost of solar drastically decrease and there are many alternatives to hydroelectric dams, Abby Seiff said in response to a question.

Abby Seiff at launch of her book in Phnom Penh, July 17, 2022. Kiripost/Penh Chamroeun
Abby Seiff at launch of her book in Phnom Penh, July 17, 2022. Kiripost/Penh Chamroeun

Seiff said the government has built hydropower dams in a way that has not taken into account environmental and social issues, and the cost impact.

“What's interesting is that you can look at the cost of a country like Cambodia from the dams and even with all the electricity and money generated, it's a huge net loss for the country in terms of what's lost for fisheries, what's lost for wetland, what's lost for wildlife,” she said.

Cambodia’s Financial Stability Review 2021 said the hydropower and energy sectors represented 4.3 percent of Cambodia’s total FDI inflow in 2021 and has increased by 2.6 times. This highlights the government’s efforts to attract investment into the sector with the aim of lowering energy costs, which was a major barrier to accelerating the country’s development for many years.

In an email on Monday, Seiff referenced a Macro economic report in 2017 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). It found that the lower Mekong basin could see economic gains of more than $160 billion by 2040.

The decline of fisheries could cost nearly $23 billion by 2040, the report found, adding that the loss of forests, wetlands, and mangroves may cost up to $145 billion.

Seiff’s book talks about the impact hydropower dams, overfishing and illegal fishing are having on Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater body of water, which is “facing a really critical stage; facing a devastating stage”.

The book also explores the impact these factors have on the livelihoods of those who live on the lake and how they are changing their way of life, which has been sustained for many generations.

Art work presentation by Sao Sreymao at the book launch. Kiripost/Penh Chamroeun
Art work presentation by Sao Sreymao at the book launch. Kiripost/Penh Chamroeun

Victor Jona, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said on Monday that despite the declining cost of solar, the energy source cannot be relied on alone.

“The cost of solar is decreasing but it is not stable, it can go on for four or five hours and that’s it,” Jona told Kiripost. He added that the government supports the use of solar and other green energy sources in addition to coal, hydroelectric and LNG as a mixture of use.

Jona also dismissed claims that the hydroelectric dams bring devastating effects. He said it is one-sided and when fish have gone, they can be raised again.

“At Sesan [dam], before, there weren't many fish but now there are many fishes and they are big fish,” Jona said.