Small-scale dams power Cambodian villages and fuel ecological concerns

As small-scale hydropower surges across Cambodia and the globe, unclear regulations raise environmental worries

August 15, 2022
Small-scale dams power Cambodian villages and fuel ecological concerns
© Anton L. Delgado

Water rushes through O’Porng Morn Kraom, a minor tributary to the Mekong River in Cambodia’s northeastern province of Stung Treng. The waterway passes through the spinning turbines of a hand-made micro-hydropower dam, one of two built by the Lounh family for Koh Sampeay village. Before the arrival of the central grid, nearby utility poles transferred the energy generated by the dam to dozens of village homes and the rural community’s local pagoda.

As some countries, including the U.S, appear to be phasing out new hydropower projects, the Kingdom is considering continuing to invest in the sector. The Lounh family dam is a miniature counterpart to the ambitious mega-dams on the Mekong mainstream,which signal progress in the Kingdom’s goal of country-wide access to electricity by 2023. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed the importance of hydropower dams as a stable power source in a July speech where he announced the country would buck the trend of rising energy tariffs, exacerbated by the conflict in Eastern Europe. 

But O’Porng Morn Kraom’s tranquil babble flows against a backdrop of debate over the delicate balance between rural development and environmental protection. While some organisations see small-scale hydropower as the key electrifying rural communities, experts have voiced concerns over a basin-wide boom in dam development l and proliferation’s potential repercussions on the river’s rich ecosystem and biodiversity.

“What hydropower development does adversely to rivers, regardless of the size, is it changes the function of how water moves,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy in the United States.
Globe’s Anton L. Delgado and Nasa Dip travelled to the site of the Lounh dam to understand the  potential effect of small-scale dams on the Mekong River.

Introduction by Amanda Oon

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