Cambodian hydropower project threatens food security

Friday, 29 November, 2013

Cambodia faces a dilemma: 80% of the population lacks reliable access to electricity, a situation which could be remedied by developing dams for hydropower. However, in developing such dams, the country faces the possibility of threatening its own ecosystems and food security.

A total of 42 dams are slated to be built in the 3-S basin within the Greater Mekong River system. The Sekong, Srepok and Sesan (3-S) Rivers are reportedly the three most critical tributaries feeding into the Lower Mekong River. Collectively, they provide major routes for migrating fish and essential water and sediment flows to the downstream flood plains, including those that nourish the Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most productive inland fisheries on the planet.

While hydropower is a clean energy option, recent studies have predicted that the dams will wipe out a significant portion of fish migration into Tonle Sap and block 90% of sediment flows, which deliver nutrients to Tonle Sap and maintain fertile soils for agriculture.

This could reportedly impact the health, livelihoods and food security of more than 55,000 villagers from 16 ethnic minority groups in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces, and millions of people further downstream that depend on the freshwater system’s fish populations and agriculture.

Conservation International has produced a short film entitled ‘Hydropower Impacts and Alternatives’, the work of filmmaker Allan Michaud, which focuses on the potential harmful effects and unintended consequences of the development.

The scientific community is recommending a moratorium on dams planned in the 3-S basin until a more thorough impact assessment can be made and trade-offs or consequences can be determined.

The film highlights possible revisions to the planned dams, including:

  • Alternative placements further upstream and away from fisheries.
  • Alternative placement of dams and reservoir operations to minimise disruption or change of natural flows.
  • The design of sediment release mechanisms to allow for greater passage of sediment and nutrients.
  • The design, testing and monitoring of different types of fish passages around dams to ensure their continued ability to travel up or downstream.

“Conservation International is very enthusiastic about the opportunity to open a dialogue about hydropower and alternative energy planning opportunities that can allow for necessary growth and development, while ensuring food and water security and climate change resilience for Cambodia and its people,” said Dr Tracy Farrell of Conservation International’s Greater Mekong program.

The 15-minute film premiered at a recent screening in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh attended by decision-makers, representatives from government ministries, local thought leaders, non-government organisations and scientists.

The film is based on research from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Most of the research findings were published in a research article entitled ‘Assessment of Flow Changes from Hydropower Development and Operations in Sre Kong, Se San and Sre Pok Rivers of the Mekong Basin’, which was published in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

To view the film, find more information or contact the producers, visit

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