Saturday, September 13, 2008

More dams for Cambodia to help rural poor

The Cambodian government is preparing to build ten hydro-electric and irrigation dams in the country's north-west provinces.
It's hoped the four billion dollar project will supply more than 100-thousand rural families with water and electricity.

Presenter: Sonia Randhawa
Speaker: Veng Sakhon, Secretary of State for the Cambodian Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology; Yang Saing Koma, President of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture; Chan Sophal, Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture President.

RANDHAWA: The World Bank says rural poverty in Cambodia has dropped by more than a fifth over the past decade, but one in three Cambodians still lives below the government poverty line. Low agricultural productivity's been identified as one of the factors keeping farming communities poor. Dams that generate both electricity and a reliable water supply are part of the solution, in the eyes of both the government and international donors. Veng Sakhon is the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology; he outlines the new proposal.

SAKHON: The beneficiaries are two provinces, affecting at least 100,000 families.

RANDHAWA: Poor yields are one barrier stopping Cambodian farmers from getting ahead financially. The crippling price of power is another. Electricity costs are five times higher in Cambodia than in neighbouring Laos, and twice as high as in Vietnam. The prospect of cheaper hydro-electric power's been welcomed by the independent Cambodian Economic Association. Its president is Chan Sophal.

SOPHAL: It is very, very important for the Cambodian economy because we badly need electricity for development. At the moment, we suffer the problem of very expensive electricity, so Cambodia is not competitive at all when compared with neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand.

RANDHAWA: However, critics say the new dams need to be built properly to deliver their promised benefits. Yang Saing Koma is the president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture. He says projects in the past have suffered from construction flaws.

KOMA: Our experience has shown that one of, one of the big problems is about the sustainability of the structure, I meant that after the construction either the quality is too poor and there is a lack of participation of the community to maintain the scheme properly so it, it leads to the low effectiveness of the irrigation scheme.

RANDHAWA: Nonetheless, the project has firm endorsement from the government. The Water Resources Ministry says it will be of value not just to surrounding villages, but to downstream communities as well, as spokesman Veng Sakhon explains.

SAKHON: The creation of the dam is really for the irrigation, the area is 130,000 heactares, and also play a very important role for flood control, because Kampong Thom area especially Stung Sen, people living along the Stung Sen are affected almost every year by the flooding.

RANDHAWA: That may not be the case unless floods are extreme, according to Yang Saing Koma.

SAKHON: Sometimes flooding is also good, because flooding can bring a lot of silt that can improve the soil fertility. Flooding also cause people in the downstream, they are also growing rice, they have to have a certain water regime that can provide good conditions for the floating rice to grow. So flooding for many places in Cambodia, it is just normal because people have got used to it.

RANDHAWA: On balance, Mr Yang says the government should be investing in other areas, and says other poor rural communities won't benefit at all from the proposed dams.

SAKHON: The impact on the fisheries, if there is a dam built, have to make sure there is a minimal impact on the fisheries, because the fisheries in Tonle Sap is very important for millions of people in Cambodia.

RANDHAWA: And Chan Sophal from the Cambodian Economic Association says that while dams can be of value, they need to be properly planned or the government won't be able to keep its promises to Cambodia's rural poor.

SOPHAL: We have to be careful with the cost of doing this, the cost can be too high, in terms of environmental cost and other cultural and social costs. Damming can be good, but it can also be bad.

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