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HYDROPOWER PLANTS & CONSEQUENCES
[In Theory and In Practice]

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HYDROPOWER PLANTS & CONSEQUENCES

The article �Drilling Beings on $662 Million Dam in Stung treng Province� published in the Cambodia Weekly edition March 14 to March 20, 2009 caught my attention, as I know that a irresponsible approach to dam building can cause unprecedented environmental and social problems.

If the construction of the 420-magawatt dam by PECC-1, a Vietnamese company, is allowed to start without proper evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assessment, Cambodia will experience serious, long term impacts on the environment, destabilizing social conditions for those families living nearby, all of which in turn undermines national harmony.

Consider the case of China. Because of its fast economic transformation, China is increasingly turning to hydropower as a clean, alternative solution to its growing energy demands.

Hydropower is expected to account for 28 percent of the country�s total power generation by 2015, up from the current 20 percent, according to that country�s National Development and Reform Commission.

Xinhua News Agency reported that China plans to build 14 power stations on Lancang Jiang, the Mekong River, with a total capacity of 22.6 million kilowatts. At the moment, three power stations on the river are operating: Manwan, Dachaoshan, and Jinghong Hydropower Stations.

 

 

Dam builders have suggested that poverty can be banished by the exploitation of hydroelectricity, and recently the potential of hydropower has charmed government seeking to reduce the cost of high energy price in order to fuel the economy growth of their respective countries.

This development and social difficulties for the downstream countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and imposed sever ecological deterioration of the Mekong River.

Downstream countries will have to bear a huge burden, and they must mobilize large amount of their development funds and other resources to mitigate the adverse effects of the dams, and to protect themselves and to try and restore the damage to their agriculture, fisheries, forests, and way of life.

There have been reports of earlier negative impacts of the Lancang hydropower dams; however, the countries to suffer most severely are Cambodia and Vietnam, especially the impact on social and environmental conditions. Particularly at risk for Cambodia is the Tonle Sap.

The statistics show that Cambodia�s Great Lake, or Tonele Sap, accounts for about 400,000 tons or 40 percent of the annual yield of Mekong fisheries, which are estimated at about one million tons.

During the rainy season the Mekong River swells to inundate vast areas of the Cambodia flood plain, including the Great Lake. This situation is welcoming to spawning and feeding habitat for hundred of fish species.

But now that the dams have been built to regulate the natural flow of the Mekong River, they greatly reduce the flooding and severely cut back the production of downstream fisheries.

Part of the Mekong River is in crisis, with diminishing flows triggering declining fish yield. The fishermen in Cambodia tell the same story. Their catches had never been so poor, and their all blame the low level of the river flow that began in more recent years.

What is worse now is that the price of fish is three times higher that it used to be, with the catches at such a low level. This has had a dreadful effect on poor Cambodian people.

As for the Great Lake, a nightmare scenario would be for the flood to subside so much that the Tonele Sap stops reversing its flow during the monsoon season. That would dry up the river�s major nursery for fish. Given that traditional food intake that Cambodia relies on is fish stocks, our people are the ones that feel threatened on the Mekong.

For years dam builders have suggested that poverty can be banished by the exploitation of hydroelectricity, and recently the potential of hydropower has charmed government seeking to reduce the cost of high energy price in order to fuel the economy growth of their respective countries.

However, this rush for hydropower, it at all, must not be based on ill-thought out and poorly coordinated plans across the Mekong basin, stretching from Tibet in China through Yunnan province to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Accurate assessment of the impact of these dams are difficult, but they must be carried out.

People in the Mekong region, especially in the lowermost downstream countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, are especially vulnerable to floods. Drought is even more menacing as it can occur over long period of time, which ultimately produces more upsetting results including the long term inability of a country to feed itself.

Due to their massive size and huge storage capacity when realized, the dams will be a threat to the livelihoods and can seriously jeopardize the whole environment due to landslide, deforestation, and degradation of the overall ecosystem of the Mekong River.

The dangerous effects to the ecosystem can be accounted by the blockage of upstream sediments and nutrients trapped in reservoirs, and by the regulated outflow of water controlled by hydropower dams.

These will cause harmful ecological simplification of the natural conditions of the river. The cumulative impact on the environment by the massive lost of biodiversity will be immense, causing the lost of essential sources of food for millions of people and taking away an important source of income from them.

There have been concerns over large hydro-power dams on the Mekong River and growing fears that among the development partner, public and private stakeholders are not being properly consulted and that the cumulative impacts of dams on fisheries and food security are not being given adequate attention.

Under these circumstances, mutual and transparent collaboration of development efforts through the Mekong River Commission, Greater Mekong Sub-region, ASEAN and other initiatives in the development of the Mekong River Basin, and in particular the cooperation with China and Myanmar, is deemed essential in the search for effective measures to mitigate the impact of natural disasters and bring about grater prosperity to our country.

The regional perspective on the Mekong can ensure that decisions leading to development of hydropower are reflective of everyone�s interests and the vision for an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong Basin will indeed promote regional security and prosperity.

Governments are easily seduced by the prospect of abundant energy sources, but if this is acquired at the expenses of social and environment condition, the next generation will have to bear the consequences. Also Read: Prek Tnout Project

Publication: This article appeared in the Cambodia Daily Opinion Section Weekly Edition, May 9-10, 2009. About the author: Pou Sothirak is a visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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