A damming issue: experiencing the complex problems of hydro-electricity in Cambodia.

On my recent visit to the Stung Atay dam site I was able to experience first-hand the impact of the tree removal from the inundation zone, converting what was almost total tree cover to a vast open tree-less area resembling a battle zone, as well as all the other issues that one wouldn’t necessarily immediately associate with the construction of the dam.

These included building roads to allow materials and workers to access the area, as well as timber to be taken out. These access roads have now opened up what was perhaps one of the most inaccessible areas in SE Asia to all sorts of potential threats such as increased illegal logging, hunting, land grabbing, conversion to agriculture and even issues such as increased risk from forest fires as more people access the forests making fires for cooking or discarding cigarettes. My 185 km trip from Phnom Penh into the area would have required, a few years ago, a 2-3 day journey by car and motorbike on roads with pot holes famed to have eaten cars for breakfast, whereas today it’s a moderately pleasant six hour car journey, even in the midst of the rainy season.

The dam site workers themselves pose a threat to wildlife in the area. As the dams are being financed, constructed and operated by Chinese companies (at least for the first 30 years after which they pass to the Government of Cambodia) the companies have imported thousands of Chinese workers, all on fairly low wages, meagre diets and with appetites for wild (bush) meat. Whilst there probably isn’t the data available to prove it, there has undoubtedly been an increase in illegal poaching and wildlife trade.

Of course the electricity has to get out from the dam site and this has involved the construction of two vast overland transmission wires, supported by huge steel pylons. These lines of pylons (one 142 km and the other 15 km) have necessitated the clearing of a great swathe of forest, again opening up access, as well as causing an unsightly (if not technologically impressive) blight across what was once one of SE Asia’s last great wildernesses.

In addition there are the people that would have called the inundation zone their home. Whilst not high in number, it is estimated that around 1500-2000 people will be affected by the dam construction, these are amongst the most marginalised and poorest people in Cambodia, who, as ethnic minorities have already suffered persecution for generations. These are indigenous people that lived with the forest, as most of their beliefs are associated with forest and animal spirits, had very little direct impact on wildlife and their habitats, and in the case of the Siamese crocodile, were their guardians. What future they now face is unknown, but I would guess it won’t be a better one.

The dam, and the resulting lake, have been billed as having the potential to help with Cambodia’s development, not only by providing electricity, but also livelihood improvements through providing tourism opportunities as well as food security through the plentiful fish the lake will provide and agricultural opportunities on the more easily accessible land.  This may be true, but at what environmental cost?  More people in and around the forest are likely to result in a range of negative impacts, such as increased disturbance, illegal logging, hunting and wildlife trade and large encroachment resulting from human in-migration.

So, whilst on the face of it this clean, renewable energy may well benefit people with a more regular supply of electricity, though hearsay does have it that much of the energy will be sold outside Cambodia, it is likely that the environmental impact and loss of habitat may out weight the benefits.

FFI has just started an EU-funded three-year project to investigate the sustainable provision of ecosystem services in the Cardamom Mountains Landscape, using the two dams mentioned here as pilot studies. The project aims to increase the capacity of government as well as local people and businesses to identify, evaluate and protect ecosystem services and develop the policies, procedures and mechanisms to achieve this. So, whilst we might be too late to reduce the impacts of these two dams, they will provide valuable lessons that will hopefully ensure that the mistakes are not repeated.