Damn Dams? The dilemma of producing clean renewable electricity while considering social and environmental issues

Phnom Penh, the relatively small capital city, at least by Asian standards, of Cambodia is home to an estimated 2 million people, about 13% of the country’s human population. About 70% of the city’s electricity is produced by what are known as “dirty” generators, powered by low grade (and polluting) heavy diesel fuel and coal, which burnt an estimated 250,000 tonnes of fossil fuels in 2009. This is supplemented by electricity generated in-country by some hydro-electricity dams (3%) and some electricity bought in from neighbouring Vietnam (27%).

Power outages are a daily occurrence in most parts of the city and work in the Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Cambodia office is frequently interrupted. This is likely to become a more common feature as Cambodia slowly develops and the demand for white and luxury goods such as refrigerators, air conditioners and plasma TV screens increases as does the need for more electricity.

Add to this the fact that around 84% of households cook using wood and charcoal, frequently produced from trees felled in protected areas, it’s fair to say that Cambodia has an energy crisis, one that could well suppress the country’s development and one that is set to get worse.

So, it would be reasonable to think then that building more hydro-electricity dams in Cambodia’s south western mountain area, reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases from the generators and providing more secure renewable energy must be a good thing, mustn’t it? Well in terms of just producing electricity it would have to be a yes, but in terms of the environmental and social impact it might be no!

pic credit: Stephen Browne/FFI

The two hydro-electric dams that have troubled FFI’s Cambodia Programme the most are the Stung Atay and the Stung Chhay Areng dams, 120 MW & 140 MW dams respectively, situated in the SW of Cambodia in an area known as the Cardamom Mountains. The first problem that arises when thinking about the dams is that they are situated in an area designated and protected by law for the biodiversity that they support.

The main protected area that will be affected is the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary (PSWS). The sanctuary falls under the jurisdiction of the Government of Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, with whom FFI has been working for over 10 years (have link to CMWSP on FFI site). PSWS, together with its neighbouring protected areas covered, until relatively recently, an area of almost 2 million ha of unbroken forest, and is still today one of the largest and most intact rainforest patches in mainland SE Asia, and provider of environmental services to millions of people.

Even so, should wildlife conservation stand in the way of development? Perhaps not, but a 2006 report by the Japanese aid agency, JICA, reviewed all planned hydro-dams in Cambodia and ranked them in relation to a range of factors, such as social and environmental impacts, value for money and long-term viability.

Neither the Stung Atay or the Stung Chhay Areng dam were within the top ten, so without building the higher ranked dams first, it is difficult to justify their construction when so many other factors need to be considered. One factor related to this might be that these smaller dams are internationally and politically less sensitive than dams built on major rivers, such as the Mekong, so are more likely to get approved, even if they are not as viable as more contentious ones.

The two primary concerns for FFI initially were the loss of forest cover in the inundation zone (the area that will be under water) and the destruction of habitat for the critically endangered Siamese crocodile.

FFI dealt in part with these issues devising a plan to relocate the crocodiles to alternative and less threatened area nearby and by working with the MoE and the company responsibly for removing the trees from the inundation zone, which was initially removing timber trees from an area much larger than the predicted and mapped inundation zone. Even with measures in place to limit logging to the intended areas, an estimated area of approximately 5,000 ha of mostly primary rainforest, rich in wildlife, will be lost.

Read more from Dr Stephen Browne when part 2 of this blog is available online on Friday 12 August