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Toward a Sustainable Renewable Energy Policy in Cambodia

Photo of the Lopburi solar power plant in central Thailand, taken in 2011. Courtesy of the Asian Development Bank’s Flickr account.

This is the fourth and final in our short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.

Although Cambodia and Laos continue to move ahead with hydropower projects in the Mekong, solutions to reduce reliance on large-scale hydropower projects exist! It is increasingly acknowledged that large-scale hydropower projects are unsustainable and harmful to the environment and ecosystems both up and downstream of the reservoir. At the same time, the price of renewable energy technologies are globally falling and provide an alternative power generation source to meet development needs and provide affordable and equitable electricity. Cambodia has high-level commitments to reduce carbon emissions, phase-in renewable energy, and bring electricity access to 90% of households by 2030. Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan 2019-2023 and Cambodia’s commitment to INDC lay out an ambitious framework for change. Using solar and potentially wind energy to replace non-sustainable hydropower projects could help Cambodia meet these targets.

As a result of increasing construction and investment in manufacturing, Cambodia’s electricity demand is significantly increasing. Electricity consumption has risen between 18% to 20% annually since 2010. The government predicts that electricity demand will grow annually by 9% between 2015 and 2040. To meet this demand, the government plans to more than double supply between 2020 and 2030.

In order to meet this rapidly rising electricity demand, Cambodia has significantly increased domestic energy generation. To date, this has primarily been through support for large-scale hydropower dam and coal. 2019 electricity generation data from the Electricity Authority of Cambodia shows that hydropower makes up 54.76 percent (1,329 MW), coal provides 27.18 percent (660 MW), fuel oil 11.2 percent (271.98 MW) and renewable energy (mostly solar) provides 6.7 percent (163.77 MW).

The government of Cambodia’s Basic Energy Plan for 2020- 2030 continues to rely on hydropower and coal as the main sources for electricity generation. The Sambor and Stung Treng dams are 2 proposed hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream in Cambodia. The environmental, economic and social impacts of the Sambor and Stung Treng dams have been assessed by numerous agencies and their construction is opposed by many regional and non-governmental organizations and civil society groups. If built, Sambor will become the most severely impactful dam on the Mekong River mainstream, reducing sediment load and blocking the passage of over 80% of migratory fish from Cambodia and Vietnam. This will reduce fish yield by a third just in Cambodia.[1]

In 2019, Cambodia faced electricity shortages during the dry season (March-May) because of high dependency on hydropower power plants, which produced insufficient electricity due to a drought which meant there was insufficient water to operate the hydropower turbines as planned. This prompted action from the government: in presenting Cambodia’s 2020 energy vision, the director of the Cambodian utilities Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) Keo Rattanak announced that Cambodia will expand its solar energy capacity by 12 per cent by the end of 2020 and to 20 per cent by 2023. He said that solar power would be used to meet increasing electricity demands in the industrial and commercial sectors. He also noted that this would be preferable to mainstream dams: “We believe solar power will provide lower prices [than hydropower]. As EdC’s director, I do not want to see the Mekong River as part of the hydropower generation.”

This new goal is takes advantage of falling costs for solar and wind technology and reflects discussions among CSOs and private sector businesses interested in solar energy investment. The 20 percent solar power target mentioned by the Cambodian EDC senior official are very welcome. Many civil society experts think that energy from solar panels could be the number one generator of electricity in Cambodia. There is strong potential with studies suggesting between 8,100 MW and 11,000 MW (IES and MKE 2016) of peak generation capacity in Cambodia every year. To put this in context, Cambodia’s total generation capacity in 2019 (including both domestic and import sources) is 2,870 MW.

Despite these exciting targets, currently the energy policies limit the adoption of solar energy. The government does allow companies and consumers to connect to the national grid while also using solar energy from a rooftop installed system. However, Electricity Authority of Cambodia regulations say that grid-connected solar power projects are only allowed to generate up to 50% of their total demand (in KW) and must purchase the rest from EDC. In order to promote solar photovoltaic generation investment, the government should consider adjusting the energy policy and regulations to remove obstacles and limitations like these. Making these changes would address concerns over the extra costs imposed on industry that want to use solar among small and medium enterprises.

Cambodia has the potential to promote clean and environmentally-friendly energy and reduce dependence on large-scale hydropower in the Mekong. There are signs the government is considering next steps to do so. The draft Environmental Code outlined plans to pilot a feed-in tariff, offering a fixed price for energy fed into the grid from independent renewable energy producers. However, implementing this will require practical and technical actions in addition to legal changes. Access to project financing and taxation is another area where policy changes could help incentivize solar investment companies.

Energy efficiency is also important as an alternative policy to address electricity demand, which on a business as usual (BAU) path will grow at a rapid rate of at least 9% per year and impose challenges on the overall electricity system. The Basic Energy Plan aims for a 15% reduction in total energy demand by 2030, compared to BAU levels. This is the minimum that should be achieved. The Cambodian Government should take further steps to achieve these reductions.

Ultimately, adopting decentralized electricity generation and shifting towards renewables in the energy mix will ensure continued economic growth and affordable electricity prices while minimizing other risks and costs.

The author visiting the first major 60MW commercial solar farm in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, on July 29, 2019. Photo courtesy of Soknak Por.

Soknak Por, a Cambodian, has been working with non-governmental organizations for more than ten years. Engaging in NGO sector since 2003, Soknak has worked with various projects in Cambodia in the fields of community development, capacity building, governance and natural resources management. He has formulated and built capacity hundreds of community-based organizations and sub-national government officials. He received master’s degree of Development Studies from University of Cambodia and Bachelor of Education in English Literature from Build Bright University in Cambodia. He has strong interest in working with grassroots community for capacity building and empowering them to protect and manage their own resources toward fair sharing of natural resources and sustainable livelihoods. He is currently working as Project Coordinator for People Protecting Their Ecosystems in The Lower Mekong Project, part of Asia Regional Natural Resource Governance Cluster of Oxfam based in Cambodia.

[1] Dr. Vittoria Elliott and Chheng Phen, Report on Spawning Habitats of Fish in the Mekong and 3S Rivers in Cambodia, Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, May 2017.

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Cambodia’s energy conundrum: what are the alternatives to the Sambor Dam?

Photo of construction of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, taken by Socheata Sim and used courtesy of the Mekong Commons Flickr account under a creative commons license.

This is the second in a short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.

Cambodia’s demand for power is currently growing at 20% a year, and experts estimate that double digit growth will continue for seven more years. While alternatives like solar are increasingly attracting attention, this energy deficit has driven discussion about the proposed Sambor dam on the mainstream of Mekong river in Kratie and other tributaries. Fortunately, EDC general director Keo Rattanak has recently announced that Cambodia will prioritize renewable energy development rather than hydropower, and estimates that it will expand to 12% of the energy mix by 2020 and rise to 20% over the next three years. It now seems like the Sambor Dam and hydropower more broadly are becoming less prioritized because there are other options available that will not have the same impacts and risks.

While the recent drought has caused concerns over hydropower’s reliability and enforced a drive to diversify the energy supply, Sambor has a long history: it was first proposed in the 1950s, but the project has been controversial because of the huge negative impacts on fish population and sediment resource, tourism and people livelihood. As a result, it has changed hands on multiple occasions.

In 2013, the Cambodian government hired the US-based Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) to review options for the project. NHI reviewed ten possible alternative design options, including a no-dam option, and concluded Sambor was among the worst proposed place for hydropower because of its large size and position as the lowermost hydropower dam on Mekong mainstream.

The Cambodian Government had previously hoped that the Sambor Dam could act as a major potential source of hydroelectricity in Cambodia. However, the recent unprecedented drought and drop of capacity factor raise questions in drought years about the benefits of hydropower, and the projected impacts for Cambodia and Vietnam make it important to seriously consider alternatives. The main problems from Sambor are the negative impacts on fish population and the serious implications for food security for the region. Sambor would block fish migration from the Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater fisheries nursery in the world— to spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Mekong river and its tributaries. The Cambodian Fisheries Administration reports that they will see a 16% to 30% drop in fishery yields if the dam is built; other experts estimate a higher loss because 40% to 70 % of Mekong fish are migratory. NHI estimates a total forecasted loss in fish harvest of between 550,000 to 880,000 tons, or a 26% to 42% decrease in total fish capture. Such a loss would decimate the income of tens thousands of subsistence and commercial fishers.

The proposed dam would also affect the movement of sediment and nutrients that flow downstream and are key inputs for agriculture in the Mekong Delta and floodplain. The NHI study estimates that the dam would capture 95% of the sediment flows to the delta. These effects are so severe because of geology: the flat floodplain on which the dam would be built does not allow for the discharge of sediment. Carl Middleton, former Mekong Program Coordinator at International Rivers, noted that the Cambodian landscape is not build for hydro dams like those of its neighbors to the north because of its flatness.

The dam would also affect national economic development. It is close to tourist attractions, such as the only habitat for the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin estimated by WWF. It also would require the relocation of about 19,000 people. The Mekong River Commission’s 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment placed the number of affected villagers’ livelihoods even higher.

Finding and investing in alternatives to Sambor and other hydropower dams is more than possible. The NHI study proposed specific alternatives including a floating solar array on the Lower Se San 2 reservoir. This is being explored as one of the no dam options, and the floating array technology has attracted attention as a way of increasing reservoir efficiency because the floating solar panels deflect heat and reduce evaporation. Cambodian land and weather are high potential for solar energy, with an average of slightly over 5 kWh/m2 per day and technical potential of 8100 MW of installed capacity.

Recently, Singapore-based renewables company Cleantech Solar conducted a trial in Cambodia with a 9.8 MW solar installation that includes 2.8 MW of floating PV. It sells power to Cambodian cement manufacturer Chip Mong Insee Cement Corporation (CMIC). Cleantech Solar said floating solar can cut down the economic losses,  as  water cools down the temperature of panels, boosts its efficiency, and limits long –term degradation from the heat. In addition, solar panels can also reduce water loss through evaporation. Riccardo Puliti, Senior Director for Energy and Extractives at the World Bank, said “floating solar technology has huge advantages for countries where land is at a premium or where electricity grids are weak.”

Cambodia also has potential for wind power: Duguet estimated that Cambodia could generate up to 500MW of wind power. Currently, energy in Cambodia is largely produced from coal-fired plants, hydropower dams, and some pilot solar farms.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy estimates that the country will see a 16.1% increase in the supply of electricity in 2019, reaching a total demand of 2,870 MW. NHI’s analysis of alternatives would seek to maximize power production while minimizing environment impact at the same time. WWF has also highlighted that it is possible to design a power system that is low carbon and low impact which would produce reliable and affordable electricity to meet Cambodia’s power demand. Wind and solar energy were 2/3 of all new global power generation capacity in 2018, partly because greater investment in wind and solar can reduce negative impacts on rivers, environment, fish population and human resolution. Equally important, the costs for wind and solar energy sources have dropped dramatically and are now approaching US$0.05/kWh, a price which is comparable to the low end of fossil fuel cost range and the average costs of hydropower.

The significant negative impacts that could result from dam construction and the severe electricity shortage due to drought in recent years is driving Cambodian policymakers to consider renewable energy alternatives.  Further investment in renewable energies would complement the existing power generation sources in the country and help avoid harm to natural resources, the environment, and Cambodia’s people.

Seanghak Khin works with Caritas Switzerland in Cambodia, where she works on Water Governance and Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). She was previously the Program Coordinator on Innovation and Research program at Center for Sustainable Water. She holds a master’s degree in Water Engineering and Management in Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand and a bachelor’s degree in Hydrology and Water Resource Engineering in Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC), Cambodia. 

Piseth Kim is the Project Manager at the Community Assessment Capacity Building Lab (CACB) and Project SAART. He was previously the Program Coordinator at Center for Sustainable Water (CSW). Piseth has a water resources and environmental engineering educational background in Cambodia and Indonesia, and has been working in Cambodia water sector since 2015.

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River management lessons from the US: a reflection on stakeholder engagement

In 2019, Socheata SIM and seven colleagues from around the Mekong region participated in an International Visitor Leadership Program touring major river basins to learn about river management in the US. This is her reflection on this experience, and kickstarts a short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.

IVLP visitors and the leaders of the New Mexico Acequia Association by the Rio-Grande River. Photo courtesy of Socheata SIM and the International Visitor Leadership Program team.

We traveled for over 21 days, held more than 30 meetings with key stakeholders active in the river management, and reviewed the current situation in three river systems across five states in the US.  This is a one-sentence summary of my experience participating in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) that the U.S. State Department organized to host visitors from five Mekong countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In meeting the overall purpose of the program to examine current water monitoring agreements and gain insight into the technology that contributes to water data management models in the United States, the eight Mekong delegates met, interacted with one another, went on field visits, and discussed cooperation framework that govern the management of the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, and the Columbia rivers.

The selected participants from Mekong countries were comprised of a mix of key officials working on state agency ranking from National Mekong Committees, government departments, universities, research institutes, and international and national NGOs and networks. This composition of ‘visitors’ reflects the true diverse nature of the key actors who are necessary for the governance and constructive dialogue on the regional need to enhance transboundary water management in the Mekong. Currently, the Mekong River Commission acts as the regional, rule-based institution formed to govern Mekong water management and cooperation.

This has been a challenge in recent decades as the increasing scale of water infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams for electricity generation, water diversions, and blasting of river rapids for regional navigation and transportation have prompted serious controversial debates between trade and economic development agenda versus the social, environmental and ecology viability of the Mekong River system. This important question of ‘now’ and the ‘future’ development versus sustainability are key questions that prompt numerous times in the public discourse set an uneasy position that water resources practitioners and water governance decision makers often run into in regional dialogue and consultation.

How does that question link to the IVLP program? It closely relates because our eight IVLP participants had extensive dialogues to learn from key stakeholders ranging from water resource program manager, university academic staff/researchers, diverse community representatives including native American, local and international NGOs working on issue of river management and governance. The three key features we repeatedly heard from the discussions forms a blueprint of water management in the United States.

Firstly, countries which are members of the treaty that governs transboundary river systems adhere to their obligations set in the treaty regarding water management. In the United States, the Treaty, Compact and Water Law/Act are cooperation framework. In the Rio Grande River, which is shared between the upstream country of the US and downstream country of Mexico, the treaty came into effect since the early 20th century and spells out clear obligations to which the US and Mexico shall comply.  The Convention signed in 1906 provides for the distribution of the waters of the Rio Grande, specifying that in a normal year, “the United States shall deliver to Mexico a total of 60,000 acre-feet (74,008,800 cubic metre) of water annually in the bed of Rio Grande…[1]” mainly for Mexico’s domestic use.

IVLP visitors met with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Socheata SIM and the International Visitor Leadership Program team.

Various stakeholders in the states of New Mexico and Texas encountered during the IVLP program emphasized the US’s international obligation to Mexico, with emphasis that in the event of extreme weather condition, such as drought, the allocation will be proportional to the availability of water flow into the river system. This treaty ensures that downstream country receives equitable sharing of the water resources. While delivering water to Mexico is the top priority under the international treaty, the United States has made full delivery of the water only twice since the treaty came in effect. This could be attributed to the fact that the period in which the treaty was agreed upon was considerably more wet than the present day, as climate change and other factors affect the amount of water available.

Secondly, there are four key factors that contribute to effective water cooperation between countries and states. They were summarized well during our meeting with the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso, Texas. The commissioner noted that i) having the legal framework that sets the clear rule and cooperation framework on how each member country will comply; ii) Sharing of the water data on regular basis; iii) A strong relationship; and iv) An effective and functioning mechanism to river management (address the water needs, flow, allocation) allow for effective water cooperation on the whole.  To me, this is critical lesson learnt.

Thirdly, although there were numerous hydropower dams constructed on the three river systems we looked at, many of the counterparts we met reminded us to learn lessons of what not to repeat from what the US has done since the early-mid 20th century in dam building. This was discussed in detail at our last day of the program when we looked at the Columbia River, the Bonneville hydropower dam, and impacts of fishery such as the salmon that are of importance for food security, cultural and identity of the Native American living in downstream from the dam.  At our meeting with colleagues at the Stimson Center earlier in the program, we talked about the importance of considering impacts that a building a hydropower project on the river will have on many variables and weighing this against the economic factors. The decision-makers should weigh that comparison and ask if impacts can be mitigated or alternative options could be considered, such as solar energy.

IVLP visitors and Mekong Program team of Stimson Center in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Socheata SIM and the International Visitor Leadership Program team.

Joining this visitor program provided me and my colleagues from the Mekong with opportunities to network with counterparts that have long experience working in the water resources sector in the States. About half of the stakeholders we met have direct experiences at some point working on/with the Mekong river and its development, while others have heard of and acknowledge the vital roles that the river has for the more than 60 million people who rely on the river for their livelihoods. As a citizen in the region, growing up on the river, and working on water governance, the complexity of the Mekong River system and its rich and irreplaceable resources and ecosystem are vital for food security. The current development agenda on the Mekong River exacerbates these issues despite growing evidence of the impacts on the river system. This needs to slow down and regional dialogue is needed more than ever to consider the impacts; who benefits and who bears the brunt of social and environmental cost of the development; and what other options could be employed to meet regional energy needs. As Brian Eyler concludes in his recently published book, “Unless we began today to see the river and its landscapes around it as a connected system and act jointly for its conservation, the Mighty Mekong’s last days are here and now.”[2]

Ms Socheata Sim serves as Program Manager for Oxfam’s Mekong Water Governance Program. She oversees staff and manages portfolio of civil society, river network, youth networks and partners projects in the lower Mekong Basin. Oxfam’s Mekong Water Governance Program’s goal is that communities and society are inclusive in the decision making processes regarding the River resources.

[1] Convention between the United States and Mexico: Equitable Distribution of the Waters of the Rio Grande, May 21, 1906.

[2] Eyler, Brian (2019). Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.

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Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Water Management via Irrigation Approaches in Cambodia?

In this second of three articles, I consider some of the salient issues surrounding the notion of “sustainability” related to the irrigation sector in Cambodia, particularly with regards to how it has been applied to date in what is considered a “successful” or “model” project implemented by one of the more “progressive” Western development agencies that rhetorically promotes market-based principles in its approach, yet heavily subsidizes an ostensibly state-controlled sector. I then seek to contextualize my field observations within the current water resources development paradigm in Cambodia, questioning whether there may be a culture of routine exaggeration of purported benefits to rural stakeholders, in a sector that is rarely critically examined from the outside.

Irrigation development has seen a veritable boom in bilateral and multilateral development investment over the past decade, financed through both loans and grants, which has been stimulated in no small measure by the short-lived spike in agricultural commodity prices, soon after the 2007 economic crisis (see graph below). This speculative uptick in the global rice price prompted some Middle Eastern and East Asian nations to flock to less developed countries like Cambodia in the expectation that they could take advantage of vast economic disparities, plus supposedly abundant, but under-exploited land and water resources to grow rice on a large-scale for export.

Such a scenario would inevitably have required the development of modern irrigation schemes employing “Green Revolution” technology (i.e. mechanization, high yielding varieties, chemical fertilizer and pesticides) and utilizing long land leases for success, leading to a sudden rush of interest from a range of Asian countries, including Kuwait, South Korea, India and China.

At the same time, several other Western lenders and donors were tempted to follow suit and step into the fray with their own project proposals, but focused more on “technological modernization”, “food security”, “irrigation reform” and “poverty alleviation” narratives, perhaps concerned about losing political goodwill at the highest levels and thus, being excluded from getting continued access to valuable opportunities in other sectors of the expanding economy, such as mining, commerce and banking.

At one point in 2008, hubristic exuberance must have got the better of premier Hun Sen when he declared in a policy speech endorsing increased rice exports that rice was like “white gold”, which by extension would encourage more irrigation investment. In a 2010 official report by the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MOWRAM) titled “Strategic Development Plan for Water Resources and Meteorology”, the four year plan to 2013 estimated the plan would require over $1.2 billion to expedite in full (Thuon, 2013), mostly based on accessing foreign loans and grants. By 2015, up to a billion US$ had been promised for irrigation development, with the bulk of it promised from China, which was pouring money into developing all infrastructure sectors, particularly roads, bridges, hydropower dams and irrigation schemes.

Prior to the 2007 economic crisis, the Cambodian government had been reportedly spending about 35 % of its total domestic budget on irrigation development (de Silva et al., 2013).

Graph showing trends in irrigation investment by the World Bank (green bars) and more general global growth in area (blue line), the Food Price Index (red line) and biodiversity trends, indicated by the Living Planet Index of freshwater species up the early years of the 21st century (purple line). Note the sudden spike in food prices in 2008. Source: Mukherji et al, 2009)

Between 2000-2013, the “Agriculture” sector in Cambodia reportedly attracted over $455 million investment, of which the two biggest recipients were classified as “agricultural development” ($128 million) and “agricultural water resources” ($99 million) according to figures held by Open Aid Data. However, this broad-brush data could be construed as misleading as it is not clear whether projects that purport to address one of these headings would actually be better reflected by being assigned under another category.

In other words, it seems quite likely that some Cambodian agricultural projects are being classified as “agricultural development” (or placed in another category), when in fact, they would be more accurately classified as “agricultural water resources” projects. More specifically, I would hazard a guess that the “agricultural water resources” category is significantly underestimating actual water resources (read: “irrigation”) development projects, thus providing a misleading picture as to the extent that irrigation is being promoted (and underwritten) by foreign aid donors to Cambodia.

A case in point would be the Cambodian Agricultural Value Chain Program (CAVAC), supported by bilateral Australian Aid (AusAID) to the tune of $45.6 million between 2010-15, which claims its goal is to “reduce poverty through a market systems approach” by aiming to “improve farmers’ incomes by increasing the value of agricultural production”. CAVAC’s promotional literature focuses on two main areas: “agribusiness and information systems” and “irrigation and water management”, claiming it works with “companies and other market actors to improve support to farmers in a systemic way, in close alignment with the Royal Government of Cambodia’s own policies”. CAVAC is executed by an Australian consultancy company, Cardno Emerging Markets (Australia) Pty Ltd, and is run out of executive offices in central Phnom Penh.

The “Market Systems Approach” prescribed by CAVAC believes it can reduce poverty in rural Cambodia by precipitating long-term changes in markets that serve “poor farmers”, which will lead to improved agricultural practices and thus, higher yields and increased production. While it seems that the CAVAC programme is well managed internally and certainly runs a slick public relations department, it has created a considerable paradox by believing it can reduce Cambodian poverty through targeting the bulk of its budget on irrigation hardware investment, thereby trying to succeed in a well-trodden sector where most (possibly all) other donor-funded and government-funded projects have ostensibly failed in the past.

Indeed, CAVAC’s own online promotional literature more-or-less admits these historical failings related to systemic limitations of Cambodian irrigation development interventions, both in terms of project design and institutional reform. Despite a plethora of alternative potential focal areas and issues it could have concentrated resources on to reduce rural poverty and social inequality in contemporary Cambodia, , CAVAC Phase 1 spent some 85 % of its total budget on the irrigation and water management line item (Component 2). And of this amount, the bulk of the sum was spent on hardware with just 10-15 % devoted to operation and management costs. While this is a higher proportion than most other irrigation development projects, it should be remembered that CAVAC was never originally conceived as an irrigation-focused project, but has morphed into this devotion to irrigation system construction and rehabilitation.

CAVAC Phase 2 (2016-21) is anticipating spending about $41 million out of $79 million total budget on irrigation and water management activities, again highlighting irrigation’s privileged status (materially and discursively) within a project that is nominally billed as targeting “agricultural value chain” improvement. On the basis of budget allocation alone, it would be far more accurately allocated as an “agricultural water resources” project in the Open Aid Data database.

A project sign on the side of the main pumphouse of the Wat Thmey irrigation scheme announces the chief project actors, including foreign donor, government partner and private sector implementing agency. Water is lifted by electric pumps up a gradient from a reservoir to supply a main canal, and then drains by gravity through secondary and tertiary canals into surrounding fields.


The CAVAC rationale for development rhetorically prioritizes “sustainability” considerations, claiming “what is required is not a technical approach to the rehabilitation of dysfunctional schemes but rather an approach that puts sustainability at the forefront of program design”. It sees sustainability first and foremost in terms of raising the economic and institutional credentials of each individual scheme, recognizing that to be sustainable, the projects “need to be commercially viable and well-managed” with farmers willing and able to pay a realistic water fee.

By comparison, it places relatively little overt emphasis on the ecological sustainability of its projects, although it does claim in a brochure titled “Achievements and Lessons Learned” (not yet available on the CAVAC website) that “sustainability meant that the key resources for agriculture (fertile land, water, biodiversity and natural crop protection) remain as productive as they currently are” in relation to Phase 1 activities. Issues surrounding practical sustainability of irrigation was a dimension of the program I was particularly interested to investigate further.

Having heard from the previous CAVAC team leader in 2013 about routine political interference that tends to accompany the funding and implementation of donor funded irrigation development projects and already seen firsthand some rather suspect projects under development in Kampong Thom province (which have reportedly run into numerous difficulties since), I was keen to see an example of a “successful” irrigation project during my latest visit to Cambodia. I was directed to the Wat Thmey project in Prey Kabas district of Takeo Province by the programme’s senior irrigation advisor, who suggested it was functioning well, if not “the best” project in the CAVAC portfolio that spreads across three provinces. Interestingly, CAVAC has spent $4.6 million on this single project, mostly on hardware items like pumps, canals and buildings, representing over a tenth of its entire operational budget, so one might reasonably expect it to be a flagship scheme.

On paper, the Wat Thmey project has rehabilitated an existing scheme dating back to the Khmer Rouge era, with a supposed command area of 2,117 ha and 2,311 households benefitting spread across 11 villages in an area on the edge of the Mekong floodplain, bordering an area prone to annual inundation. A so-called “Farmers Water User Community” (FWUC) of elected farmer representatives that manage the scheme had been established in 2014, following the standard “participatory” approach to irrigation institutions found across Cambodian schemes funded by Western donors. It is widely acknowledged among observers that most of the FWUCs nationwide are ostensibly dysfunctional, due to a complex set of socio-political circumstances that mitigate against their institutional effectiveness, social equitability and sustainability (e.g. Chea et al., 2011; de Silva et al, 2013).

On the ground, I found the Wat Thmey project was functioning relatively well in late March 2017, at a time when the dry season rice crop was being harvested for some households and others were preparing fields for the coming wet season. At the time, no water was physically being lifted by the two main project pumps, but a plethora of villagers’ personal surface or groundwater pumps were at work irrigating individual farms. I witnessed an active FWUC overseeing water management duties and liaison with outside entities, including government agencies and CAVAC staff. Farmers that received water from the project for dry season cropping were paying a $55/ha irrigation service fee and had achieved reasonable yields of around 6 tonnes/ha on average.

There were some concerns expressed about the cost of the water fee, which some thought should fluctuate with the market price of rice, and a few others met were not satisfied with the financial transparency of the FWUC leadership, but overall it seemed to be reasonably run. Rice was the predominant crop grown under the CAVAC-supplied water regime, but there were a number of farmers growing cucumbers and melons near the town of Prey Kabas, all relying on their own diesel-powered groundwater pumps (see photos).

While the Wat Thmey scheme may be deemed successful according to CAVAC’s own criteria and there are positive elements evident within this project, the rapid field visit suggested that the project’s socio-economic impact could be exaggerated, while the sustainability credentials may not be as strong as claimed. Of particular note was a lack of attention paid to environmental credentials and a seeming dearth of reliable extension services reported by farmers interviewed, but of greater concern for the medium to long term viability of this project was growing labor shortages, placed in the context of rapid changes apparent in the Cambodian employment market. I shall deal with each of these “deal breakers” for sustainability in turn, starting with the labor question.

A farmer (left), having recently sold his rice crop delivers his irrigation service fee to the Chairman (right) and finance officer (centre) at the Wat Thmey scheme’s new FWUC office, built with CAVAC funds over the main canal near Prey Kabas district town

Anyone travelling out of Phnom Penh on any of the main roads south, would find it hard not to notice physical evidence of a significant shift underway in the Cambodian labor market. The national highways to Sihanoukville, Kampot and Takeo are flanked either side by one large foreign-owned factory after another, that collectively are employing hundreds of thousands of young workers (mainly women), the vast majority of whom have recently moved out of the agriculture sector. Women reportedly constitute 90 % of the workforce in the rapidly growing garment production industry, with many of the factories unregistered according to Human Rights Watch. At the end of the work shifts, main roads in front of the factories are blocked by a mass exodus of low paid employees streaming out to catch shared transportation back to their villages.

Indeed, a study commissioned by CAVAC itself estimated that during the period 2014-19, between 891,000 to 1,043,000 additional people would join the Cambodian labor force, with most of these working in the textile, tourism and construction industries, plus a significant proportion moving abroad as temporary migrant labor, with Thailand the primary destination. The upshot of this tectonic shift from farm-based to off-farm employment is that labor to carry out agricultural tasks is becoming increasingly scarce and more expensive, thus leading to a shortage at certain times of year and for key tasks. As elsewhere, farming is increasingly becoming an occupation of an aging demographic, who find it a challenge to manage the family landholding and make a living as new external pressures mount on their time and energy, such as demands by migrant workers on grandparents to look after their young children in return for regular remittances.

Yet irrigated agriculture induces a need for extra labor, if it is to succeed as a strategy for achieving higher farm productivity, thus negating a major part of the rationale of the CAVAC project, which claims it is targeting poorer smallholder farmers, i.e. exactly the kind of people most likely to be migrating to the more financially secure and stable jobs in non-farm work. If irrigated agriculture could deliver a higher, more reliable and regular income than off-farm opportunities, then there would be a better chance people would stay at home and farm. Then there are also questions of aspiration – especially of the younger generations being swept up in a gathering maelstrom of urban-driven consumerism, regionalization and globalization.

At the present time, there is little indication that the economics of dry season rice will be sufficient to ensure most adolescents and young adults desire to remain in farming. This aspect of the changing labor market was further underlined through a question put to each farmer encountered regarding their grown-up children’s present main occupation (invariably working in non-farm employment, both locally, in the city or abroad) or what they wanted their school age children to do when they left school in the future (if it was not to study further, most parents wanted them to work in off-farm jobs). Just as in neighboring Thailand and countless nations undergoing a fundamental agrarian shift, there seemed little appetite in Cambodia (especially in areas well connected to the city like Takeo) for preserving the vagaries of smallholder agricultural work, even where new irrigation schemes have been subsidized by foreign aid donors at significant expense.

But there also seems to be little evidence that either AusAID or their agents have adequately internalized the impact of a dwindling labor-base on the future economic sustainability of the prescribed irrigation development model, especially in provinces with easy access to the capital and expanding local non-farm employment opportunities, like Takeo. As was conceded to me by the CAVAC irrigation adviser, a farming household probably needs to have a minimum of 5 ha of land to realistically reap dividends from modern irrigation schemes, thus ruling out the majority of rural smallholders from ever being project beneficiaries. Most households at Wat Thmey were cultivating less than 2 ha of irrigated rice.

Harvesting the 2017 dry season rice crop next to a CAVAC project rehabilitated canal to which no water reaches, due to over-allocation, a recurring problem nationwide. Farmers must still rely on pumped groundwater for irrigation needs.


Receiving regular and relevant agricultural extension services, whether from governmental or non-governmental sources, including agribusiness companies striving to increase their clientele, is an issue recognized in the CAVAC design principles as being important, in a bid to encourage “adaptive management” which “relies on quick feedback loops as a way to speed up learning”. Unfortunately, on the basis of my field-level encounters with farmers I saw little evidence that this claim was being translated into practice on even a limited basis, with most people professing little or no contact with agricultural extension services of any description over the last few years.

Wat Thmey is primarily perceived as a CAVAC and Provincial Department of Meteorology and Water Resources (PDoWRAM) owned project, and while officials may often visit the FWUC, they are not filtering down to the field or farmer level regularly enough, creating a discernible gap between managers and water users. PDoWRAM staff possess minimal skills and experience of practical agriculture in any case, being focused on hydraulic development expansion, while the supposedly more-qualified Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) provincial and district level staff were notable by their absence.

Most agricultural extension in Cambodia seems to be carried out in a self-interested manner by agribusiness firms, a sector which CAVAC claims to have directed a lot of resources towards, but they too did not seem to have a perceivable presence in terms of extension services, at least among the farmers we talked to. Farmers were mostly reliant on merchants and farmer-to-farmer contact for their receipt of knowledge about novel products or techniques, and there were concerns expressed about the former group’s impartiality. Empirically speaking, CAVAC did not seem to be living up to its promise on this front, for all the hubristic claims of promoting sustainability.

The third aspect of the sustainability matrix that I wish to highlight is the environment, having been struck by a number of issues at the flagship Wat Thmey project. It seemed to me that environmental sustainability was not being treated with the seriousness it deserves. CAVAC has rightly identified that pest and disease problems are an issue of high concern among farmers, since they are inherently being encouraged to practice more intensive agriculture through irrigation development investment. It was evident that there was high and regular use of pesticides (applied weekly on dry season rice crops) and chemical fertilizer among farmers, but there was a correspondingly low awareness of public and environmental health dangers and risks.

As noted above, farmers lacked any credible extension support, so ignorance and misuse of pesticides was an unavoidable consequence in a situation where most products are imported from Vietnam (so labels are in Vietnamese language) and functional literacy levels are low among users. In such circumstances, long experienced in neighboring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, it is almost inevitable that there is going to be acute and chronic impacts on human health, both directly through pesticide (mis-)handling and application, but less directly through soil, water and aquatic organism contamination, as well as multiple negative impacts on the aquatic ecology and the wider environment.

CAVAC appears to have failed in producing any mitigation strategy that would have a tangible impact at the farm level, instead focusing most attention on yield and productivity increases as its key measures of “success”. Unsurprisingly, farmers reported a precipitous decline in fish, frogs and other edible aquatic biodiversity, that formally constituted a significant proportion of local diets.

Finally, I would like to point out a more egregious issue with reporting overall impact within the CAVAC project, a phenomenon not uncommon among peer projects keen to impress donors, host state bureaucrats or politicians, the media and other external parties, but raises questions about accountability and transparency nevertheless. In project literature outlining the fundamentals of the Wat Thmey scheme, it is claimed that the “potential command area” of the entire scheme is 2,117 ha, but for “recession cropping” (i.e. dry season rice) 1,200 ha are cultivated “after rehabilitation” that supposedly benefits 728 households.

My site visit indicated that these figures represent a significant exaggeration of actual irrigation provision by the project, with only farmland located near to the main canals being effectively served by the CAVAC water delivery system. We met farmers that had land located between 500-1,000 m from the primary canals who were not able to access water from the CAVAC project, as available water was insufficient. Often there were secondary or tertiary canals located nearby, but no water reached them. Many farmers were still growing irrigated vegetables or rice in the absence of public irrigation water, but accessed water supplies themselves from groundwater pumps, which while reliable, was invariably more expensive than the CAVAC surface water and reportedly of less good quality, being acidic. Thus the number of households actually benefiting and paying the irrigation service fee, according to the FWUC chairman, was 337 families, some 46 % of the CAVAC claimed figure. The area actually irrigated was likely to be less than 500 ha. It could be assumed that the numbers of beneficiaries were also exaggerated for the “early wet season” crop, thus leading to the conclusion that CAVAC was almost certainly significantly over-stating the scale of project benefits.

A farmer tends a crop of melons. Despite the $4.6 million rehabilitation cost of the Wat Thmey scheme by CAVAC, many farmers like this one with land nearby new canals continue to rely on pumped groundwater for crop irrigation, but are still counted as “project beneficiaries”.

Such over-statement of farmer numbers, land area irrigated, productivity gains, added economic value, etc. for a single project can also be detected in CAVAC brochures produced at the program level. In its “Achievements and Lessons Learned” booklet, CAVAC confidently claims that up to 2015, “at least 19,000 households now have access to year-round water allowing for double or triple cropping each year” from 20 schemes constructed, which will “potentially enable farmers to produce an extra 200,000 tonnes of rice a year”, which would have an estimated value of “around US$ 43 million”.

However, reviewing the available project literature and on the basis of my knowledge of the Cambodian irrigation sector overall, I would have strong reservations about there being adequate justification for such optimistic claims. Given that the “crown in the jewel” scheme at Wat Thmey seems to have overstated actual beneficiaries by 216 %, then I would hazard a guess that the situation is considerably worse at the other schemes, calling into question the whole basis by which CAVAC is claiming to be a successful, sustainable and value for money project for its implicit core component – irrigation development. It is also tempting to question whether the “demand-driven” claims of the project are more reflecting the desires of ruling politicians and bureaucrats in Cambodia than meeting the actual needs of rural Cambodians, especially the professed target demographic of “poor farmers”? I dare say, however, that the on-the-ground situation and level of socio-economic benefit hype is considerably more egregious at other projects supported by different donors, as shall be explored in the next article in the series.


CHEA, C., NANG, P., WHITEHEAD, I., HIRSCH, P. & THOMPSON, A. (2011) Decentralised Governance of Irrigation Water in Cambodia: Matching Principles to Local Realities. CDRI Working Paper Series. Phnom Penh, Cambodia Development Research Institute.

DE SILVA, S., JOHNSTON, R. AND SELLAMUTU, S.S. (2013) Agriculture, Irrigation and Poverty Reduction in Cambodia: Policy Narratives and Ground Realities Compared. Colombo, Sri Lanka, International Water Management Institute.

MUKHERJI, A., FACON, T., BURKE, J., DE FRAITURE, C., FAURES, J.-M., FULEKI, B., GIORDANO, M., MOLDEN, D. & SHAH, T. (2009) Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation: To sustainably meet tomorrow’s food needs. Colombo, Sri Lanka, International Water Management Institute and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

THUON, T. (2013) Localizing Development and Irrigation Management in Cambodia. IN DANIEL, R., LEBEL, L. & MANOROM, K. (Eds.) Governing the Mekong: Engaging in the Politics of Knowledge. Selangor, Malaysia, Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.

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Hydropower in Laos: An Alternative Approach


It’s time to take another look at the future of energy in Southeast Asia.

A report published in September by the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, challenges prevailing notions about the future of hydropower in the Mekong subregion, an area including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and southwestern China.

The report focuses on Laos, which in years past has proclaimed itself the future “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by aggressively developing hydropower dams on the Mekong. Laos has already built 29 large dams along the river’s mainstream and tributaries, with plans for over 100 in total. The land-locked country remains the poorest in Southeast Asia, and has planned to raise cash by exporting electricity to consumers in neighboring countries.

But project developers of these dams – who are typically Thai and Chinese companies – have faced criticism from civil society groups and international observers for the myriad social and environmental consequences brought on by dam construction. The Mekong is home to an estimated 1,000 species of fish, many of which migrate along the river and replenish the region’s fisheries. By changing the hydrology of the river, these dams threaten the biodiversity of the Mekong and the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers throughout the region. In times of drought – as has been experienced this year – the dams can cause regional insecurity by contributing to water scarcity problems downriver.

While dam construction has continued apace despite these dangers, the Stimson report argues that new markets and technologies are creating an opportunity to change course.

Challenges for Lao Hydro

The report highlights new developments that could steer Laos away from further damming on the Mekong. First, following a period of economic and political liberalization, Myanmar is emerging as a competitor for energy infrastructure finance. Myanmar boasts nearly 100 gigawatts of potential hydropower capacity, far exceeding what is possible in Laos. Such a glut of potential projects in the region is likely to siphon away financing that might otherwise go towards hydropower development in Laos.

At the same time, China’s economic slowdown could signal the end for cheap and easy hydropower finance in the region. In previous years, Chinese state planners encouraged outbound investment in strategic sectors such as hydropower projects in Southeast Asia. However, the report notes that government concerns about non-performing loans on the books of Chinese banks seem to have reduced the funding available for some projects in Laos. Rising local awareness about the social and environmental costs of these dams also adds a layer of risk that financiers may find discouraging.

Perhaps most critically, it appears as if planned generation in Southeast Asia is outpacing the region’s appetite for energy. China, once envisioned as a potential market for Laos power, is already experiencing serious overcapacity in its domestic power market. Thailand, while still a major investor in Laos hydro projects, has consistently overestimated its own consumption levels – and has lots of room to cut demand through energy efficiency measures. Both Cambodia and Vietnam have planned to reduce their reliance on imported energy, with the latter investing heavily in coal-fired power plants.

A New Vision for Laos

Taken together, these signals make a compelling case for a new energy strategy in Laos and in the region as a whole.

First, the report suggests that Lao planners should invest in a backbone transmission network to connect its patchwork regional grids. This is a good idea for a variety of reasons. A nationwide transmission system would help open up markets for Lao electricity both domestically and internationally by creating a more flexible grid. It would help planners integrate renewable energy resources like solar and wind. It would also be a great step towards electrifying the remaining 20% of the country still without power.

Secondly, planners should consider ways to diversify the country’s energy mix with wind and solar. With too much reliance on hydro, the region risks facing shortages during drought conditions, which will become increasingly likely due to the effects of climate change.

It also makes good economic sense. Utility-scale solar is now nearly cost-competitive with hydro in Laos. Solar avoids the social and environmental challenges associated with hydro that have led to disruptive public protests and cost overruns, making it a safer bet.

In fact, solar already plays an important role in electrifying Laos’ rural communities. Companies like Sunlabob have pioneered low-cost solar home systems to provide basic electricity services like lighting and device charging to remote communities. A new energy outlook from Lao energy planners would also be a great opportunity to optimize plans to fully electrify the country, whether by grid connection, solar home systems, or village-level microgrids.

Lastly, greater international cooperation in energy planning is needed. The construction of a national power grid will require technical assistance from international experts. The Asian Development Bank is leading this effort, and plans to invest $400 million in a national transmission network by 2020. The US has already begun providing power planning and optimization assistance through the Department of Energy and its national laboratories.

The US is also supporting renewables in Laos. In advance of President Obama’s visit to Laos in September 2016, the US Trade and Development Agency committed to funding a feasibility study for a 20 megawatt solar farm in the country.

China, as a regional power with an abiding interest in Laos’ energy sector, can also benefit from this shift. The world’s largest solar module manufacturers are Chinese, and government support for emerging solar markets is one way to bolster domestic manufacturers while also rebranding China as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

Laos’ energy future is still uncertain. Energy planners remain convinced that prioritizing dam construction is Laos’ ticket to prosperity, despite the risks. But as the challenges for Lao hydro become ever more apparent, a new way forward could be in the making.

Read the Stimson Center’s full report here.

This article was first published here on the Pacific Observer website.

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Map of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)


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Human Rights in Cambodia 2012

On April 19, the US Department of State released the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” its annual collection of human rights assessments for all the nations of the world. Cambodia’s entry (pdf here) is not particularly riveting when read as-written, appraising rights victories and abuses in a dispassionate, diplomatic monotone; however, it does succeed in shedding light on several important emerging trends. The overarching narrative is a complicated amalgam of land concessions, corruption and impunity, set against a backdrop of rapid economic growth. Continue reading

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