Reconsidering the Sambor and Stung Treng Hydropower Projects - Khmer

Posted on 06 August 2019

For the first time in history, Cambodia has an opportunity to achieve universal access to affordable and reliable electricity, within a short time frame, and without disrupting the lives of many of its citizens or its remarkable biodiversity. New technologies allow the country to avoid the risks and delays associated with large-scale hydropower. This brief lays out why Cambodia would do well, under these new conditions, to reconsider whether large hydropower projects like Sambor and Stung Treng are in the best public interest. 

Cambodia faces important strategic choices to continue its rapid development, and Sambor and Stung Treng would have significant implications for power supply, food security, export revenues, employment and many other policy objectives. While the projects would generate large amounts of electricity, they would also inundate large portions of the country’s north-east, including protected areas that are crucial for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services.  

A review of the projects’ risks shows that many of these cannot be mitigated. As for other large-scale hydropower projects, there is a high probability of cancellations, delays, and cost overruns. Because the Mekong and its floodplains are exceptionally productive, there are major risks – perhaps larger than on any other river in the world – for fisheries, agriculture, and biodiversity. Of all the possible dams in the Mekong system, it is Sambor that carries the greatest risks. There would also be major displacement of people on a scale unprecedented in Cambodia.
The direct costs of the projects would be large and uncertain, but the indirect economic costs for Cambodia and for Vietnam would also be very large. At the same time, the benefits – in terms of being able to produce power at a lower cost than from other sources – are doubtful. Cambodia has better alternatives for power generation, both for domestic demand and for export. Most importantly, these alternatives would be able to deliver power much earlier, and without risking conflicts within the country and with its neighbors.

Traditionally, natural gas plants would have been the most obvious alternative. Fortunately, however, a new and even more competitive alternative has become available: Cambodia can choose to go directly to solar photovoltaics. With a concerted effort, the country can benefit from this technology to deliver a major boost to its development. Sambor and Stung Treng have become unnecessary, and continuing with their preparation has become a distraction. 

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