My thinking on sustainable development issues in Cambodia and in the region.
by: Heng Pheakdey
Hydropower projects have often been reported in the media for causing harm to the environment and community. For example, the Kamchay dam in Kampot was reported to have destroyed 2,000 hectares of productive forest and seriously affected the source of income of the local people. Stung Atay dam in Koh Kong province was also said to have flooded around 5,000 hectares of protected forest in the Phnom Samkok Wildlife Sanctuary and the Cardamom Mountains. Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng was criticized for displacing some 5,000 families and adversely affecting the livelihoods of 100,000 people who depend on the region’s fisheries.
While all of these problems are real, they are not inherent to hydropower. Portraying only the negative effects of dams might have led the general public to believe that all hydropower projects are evil and they should be avoided at all costs.
In fact, hydropower, if well managed, produces reliable and clean renewable energy. Globally, hydropower accounts for around 85 % of total renewable electricity generation and provides more than one billion people with power. It is by far the largest source of renewable power generation worldwide. Unlike traditional energy sources, hydropower doesn’t use fossil fuel so it helps contributing to the reduction of air pollution and the fight against climate change. Hydropower also provides many social benefits. In addition to producing electricity, dams can be used as a flood control and irrigation system. The construction of dams helps generate local employment and may also improve local infrastructure.
Despite their advantages, hydropower projects are frequently blamed for causing negative environmental impacts and social disruption, including the loss of vital components of the ecosystem, the loss of livelihood of local communities, the involuntary resettlement, and the negative effect on indigenous and minority groups. However, such problems are not caused by hydropower per se. Poor management, irresponsible developers and weak institution are the root of the problem. Sadly, many hydropower projects around the globe have failed to adopt the international best practices. Poor planning, the lack of transparency, the absence of proper mitigation measures, and the lack of sufficient consultation process are the common causes of dam failure.
While it is undeniably true that ill-managed hydropower projects will lead to environmental and community destruction, it would be unwise to say no to all dam projects. Forgoing hydropower, the country will miss the opportunity to exploit a clean energy source to produce electricity which is necessary for its economic growth and social development. Hydropower dams, just like other development projects, have both pros and cons. The key is to weight the costs and benefits of each project. Projects which cause irreplaceable damage to the environment and severely affect the local community should be banned. In other cases where the benefits of hydropower outweigh the cost, its sustainable management should be promoted. A sustainably developed hydropower starts with a comprehensive feasibility study to assess its true costs and benefits. Various stakeholders must be consulted during the entire development project, from initial planning to the final evaluation.
Effort must be made to minimize the risks and benefits must be shared equally especially among the affected communities. The government should uphold transparency and hold the developer accountable to their development project. A comprehensive mitigation measure should also be put in place by taking into consideration various factor such as local biological diversity, fish migration, reservoir sedimentation, water quality, resettlement, minority group, public health, power generation, job creation and local infrastructure.
About the author: Mr. Heng Pheakdey is the Founder and Chairman of Enrich Institute.
Note: the article originally appeared in KhmerTimes on May 29, 2014.