Thursday, March 27, 2008

These "Dam" Externalities get everywhere

Despite my poor attempt at a play on words in the title (there must be a better one), the "economics of dams" is something that interesting me for some reason.

I just can't help thinking that the knock on effects of dams are never fully included (either upstream or downstream) in any cost benefit analysis.

Today's PlanetArk post on the effect of Chinese built dams in Cambodia articulate my initial fears more eloquently. The title of the article is misleading. These are Chinese built dams but are located in Cambodia.

The main loss will be felt by those perpetual losers in these matters, the "indigenous communities", followed closely by the always "rare" wildlife (turtles in this case and some migrating fish) plus an ark load of other big beasts.

Chinese Dams Threaten Cambodia's Forests, Farmers [PlanetArk]


Faced with a rapidly growing but power-starved economy, Prime Minister Hun Sen has decided the rivers flowing from one of the few elevated spots in a relentlessly flat country should become its battery pack.

With this in mind, in the last two years he has agreed to at least four Chinese-funded hydropower projects as part of a $3 billion scheme to boost output from a measly 300 MW today to 1,000 MW in a decade, enough to power a small city.

The indigenous communities who have lived off the forests in the Cardamoms since the dawn of time appear to be the ones who will be paying the biggest price.



Few people argue that Cambodia's 14 million people need more power.

After decades of war and upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields" of the 1970s, the economy has finally taken off, growing at nearly 10 percent a year.

But its antiquated, mainly diesel-fuelled power plants can meet only 75 percent of demand, meaning frequent blackouts and unit prices around twice those of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam -- both factors inhibiting faster expansion.

With the closer ties Hun Sen has cultivated with Beijing in the last five years, Chinese cash and dam-building expertise has become a logical solution to what is one of the inevitable pains of breakneck growth.

"Chinese investment in hydropower is so important for Cambodia's development," Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said in January after meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.

But critics maintain that much of the planning is taking place with scant regard for the long-term impact on the environment in a country where (80) percent of people still rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

"Poorly conceived and developed hydro-power projects could needlessly and irreparably damage Cambodia's river system with serious consequences," said Carl Middleton of the US-based International Rivers Network.


The Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh denied Beijing was taking any short-cuts in dam construction in Cambodia -- part of a massive aid package designed to ensure a compliant friend in the region.

"They comply with environmental standards and are approved by the Cambodian government," said a Chinese diplomat who did not wish to be named. "We just want to help Cambodia as much as we can."

But the Chay Areng project hardly appears to be a model of transparency.

The deal was signed in late 2006 with China Southern Power Grid Co (CSG), one of China's two grid operators, to build a 260 MW plant at an estimated cost of $200 million and with a completion date of 2015.

With no prior consultation, the first villagers knew of the project was when Chinese engineers turned up this year to start working on feasibility studies -- details of which CSG and the government are reluctant to discuss.

Environmentalists who have conducted their own studies say the dam's lake will cover 110 sq km (42 sq miles) and displace thousands of indigenous people in nine villages.

More than 200 animal species, including elephants, sun bears, leopards and the endangered Siamese crocodile, would be affected upstream, said Sam Chanthy, head of the NGO Forum, a foreign-funded non-governmental organisation in Phnom Penh.

Downstream, the delicate ecosystem of the flooded forest, home to some of the world's rarest turtle species as well as hundreds of types of migratory fish, would also be hit by disruptions to water flow, he said.

"It won't take long for these invaluable assets to disappear when the dam is built," said Eng Polo, of wildlife group Conservation International.


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