Rethinking Hydropower: Reflections on the Lower Sesan 2 Dam

Natalie OrentlicherMekong Blog, Mekong River Basin0 Comments

By Kounila Keo

The Cambodian government has collaborated with private companies to build dams in the Sesan River, a lower Mekong River tributary which flows through Central Vietnam and northeast Cambodia. The much-anticipated 400-megawatt dam, also known as the Lower Sesan 2 dam project, has an investment of $816 million and was started in November 2012. Primarily owned by China’s Hydrolancang International Energy and Cambodia’s Royal Group, the dam is being built on a section of the Sesan River in Stueng Treng province in Cambodia’s northeast. Most of the electricity will reportedly be sold to state energy provider Electricite Du Cambodge (EDC) or exported to Vietnam under a 40-year contract.

Sesan River

Figure 1: The Sesan River in Stueng Treng province, a major tributary of the Mekong flowing through              Cambodia and a major lifeline for locals. All photos by Koulina Keo


A nation’s growing hunger for energy

Cambodia’s GDP per capita has tripled between 1999 and 2013. Along with this growth comes a rising demand for electricity – at the rate of 17.9% annually from 2012 to 2020. Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, consumes 90% of the country’s electricity production. Furthermore, Cambodia’s population is projected to grow to nearly 16 million within the next few years, with 80% of the population living in rural areas.

Currently, most of Cambodia’s electricity demand is met by imported electricity from Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, as well as locally-produced oil generators. High reliance on imported fossil fuels and electricity, lack of electricity in rural regions, and escalating energy demands are challenges being faced by the Cambodian government. Against such a backdrop, hydropower projects appear attractive as a means of producing clean energy while catering to the overall economic development of the region.

Impact on environment

About 80% of over 60 million people living along the Lower Mekong Basin rely on the river for livelihoods, food, socio-economic activities and other ecosystem services.

Figure 2: Many families use water from Sesan River for drinking, cooking, and cleaning

A 2012 study by US and Cambodian researchers estimates that the dam, once constructed, will reduce fish biomass in both the Mekong system by more than 9% – equivalent to 150,000 tonnes a year, because it will obstruct fish passage Experts have also warned that the Lower Sesan 2 dam might change significantly the hydrology of the Mekong River and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, while diminishing sediment flows to the Mekong Delta.

The dam developer has promised to provide a fish channel in the dam, but experts say that this is insufficient to address the fish migration problem. An advocacy group, International Rivers, has warned against the irreversible effects of the dam.

The Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, a group of NGOs, has reported the dam reservoir is set to flood more than 30,000 hectares, the majority of which is forest area and includes some 1,200 hectares of community farmland and housing. As a result, illegal logging in the affected forests has significantly increased.

A few active NGOs in Cambodia have challenged the government’s evaluations of the complications arising from the Lower Sesan 2 dam. They have argued for more open discussion between the government and civil society groups, including non-government organizations and civic leaders.

Figure 3: Sesan River provides a means of livelihood for many people.

Rethinking dams: A Personal Reflection

As a resident of Phnom Penh, I have experienced first-hand the high cost of electricity and frequent blackouts. Unfortunately, even in the national capital, 24-hour power is as yet an unrealized dream. Acute shortages of electricity and water during every dry season affects residents as well as industrial sectors

In spite of having four completed hydropower dams, Cambodian electricity production falls short of the nation’s growing demand.

During my trip to two of the villages affected by the Lower Sesan 2 dam, I learnt a lot from the villagers who had lived there for generations about the immediate impacts of the dam project on their livelihoods. Their lives are so dependent on the river and its resources that the very thought of relocation without any access to the river’s ecological services is their worst nightmare. Moreover, many families have yet to receive their compensation packages.

It is, perhaps, a very human response to a large-scale change.

Figure 4: The dam reservoir would flood over 300,000 hectares affecting many villages near the Sesan.

In his paper “Impact of Large Dams”, Professor Asit Biswas from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Poilcy, argues that large dams have both societal benefits and costs. While there are large economic benefits, local stakeholders have to pay the costs by losing livelihoods and ancestral properties. He further explains that those receiving the benefits accruing from the dam are often different from the affected stakeholders and may not even be aware of the environmental costs.

It is crucial for every country, he says, to sanction a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) before approval or funding of such big projects leading to irreversible environmental impact on a massive scale. Although an EIA has been carried out for the Lower Sesan 2 dam, local advocacy groups and communities strongly contest its findings, claiming these to be favoured towards the developers.

However Cambodia decides in the years ahead, I am convinced that governments should include local stakeholder opinions while approving such major developmental projects. Most of the villagers with whom I interacted stated that they are not totally against the dam construction, but want to be properly consulted, informed and compensated.

Their chief concern is whether alternate settlement sites would have access to enough water and good livelihood options. While the motive behind building hydropower plants is to provide electricity for the country, it is also the government’s duty to ensure that millions of impoverished livelihoods are not jeopardized in the process.

Kounila Keo is a researcher on MK20 A Space for Dialogue: People, Perceptions, and Principled Outcomes in the Governance of the Mekong and is currently doing a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Leave a Reply