Harnessing the Sesan River (Part 4) Hydroelectric dam: A new hope for Cambodia’s development, economy and better livelihood of the people

A major blackout in Phnom Penh and 24 provinces across the country on the night of November 26, 2015 became front-page headline news in Cambodia.

The blackout prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to an impromptu nation-wide announcement to clarify to the Cambodians that the incident was not caused by an act of terrorism but by electrical transmission problem from power plants in Vietnam.

Although the blackout lasted about one hour from 10 pm to 11 pm, the incident served a wake-up call for Cambodia about its dependence on energy supply from Vietnam.

According to the Electricity Authority of Cambodia, Phnom Penh alone which has one-tenth of the population of the entire country consumes 90 percent of the electricity or 300 megawatts per day of which 120 megawatts come from Vietnam.

As Phnom Penh which is the economic hub of the country is expanding rapidly with new real estate projects popping up, hence the increasing need of electricity.

Mr Somthirit Din, president of the Hotels Association of Cambodia, told Thai PBS that blackout was a normal phenomenon in Cambodia although the situation is much better today than it was previously. He said that, in the past, Phnom Penh had only half an hour of electricity a day or only one day within a week.

The areas in Phnom Penh which are often hit by blackout include Russian market, a huge shopping zone similar to Chatuchak weekend market, said Mr Somthirit, adding that, some days, there is no electricity for half a day.

There is less problem at the palace and at major tourist destinations. Most hotels and businesses have their own generators as a backup in case there is a blackout.

During the period between 2013-2014, Cambodia bought electricity from Vietnam amounting to 40-50 percent of its consumption demand but only 31 percent of Cambodians have access to electricity. However, the Cambodian government’s energy development plan for the years 2008-2020 aims to electricity access up to 70 percent of its population in the year 2030.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy announced a plan to build eight hydroelectric power plants and three coal-fired power plants with a combined energy capacity of 6,300 megawatts.

One of the 8 hydroelectric dams is the lower Sesan ll dam which is now 50 percent complete. The power plant here which has a capacity of 400 megawatts is due to become operational next year.

Cambodia has estimated that it has the potential to generate up to 10,000 megawatts of hydro electricity and, so far, only 10 percent of its full capacity has been used.

But there is a price to be paid for the Sesan II dam project. About 336 square kilometer of the land area will be flooded and turned into a huge reservoir. About 5,000 people in six villages will be resettled in areas allocated by the government. But the project will have indirect effects on about 50,000 people in Stung Treng and Rattana Khiri provinces.

Although the Cambodian government has assured that the environment impacts assessment report for Sesan II dam project is the best ever done, environment activists doubt that the EIA process is fair and independent because the report was undertaken by a company affiliated with the dam constructor.

Maet Mean, a coordinator the network for the protection of Sesan river, pointed out that the EIA report did not take into account the study of fish species in the river and the migration of fish from the Mekong river into the Sesan river.