In recent years, the economic growth witnessed in Thailand, Vietnam,and has maintained impressive levels. This growth has been accompanied by increases in demand for power, as the more developed economies of and Vietnam seek to fuel their industries and as Cambodia and Laos seek to meet the needs of their underserved populations and encourage investment. As Vietnam and Thailand struggle to generate power to meet domestic demand they have signed numerous agreements with neighbouring countries for power exports. For a number of years Laos has discussed its vision of becoming the "battery of Southeast Asia," and now Cambodia has ambitious plans to develop a series of large-scale hydropower plants which would produce far more electricity than required by its relatively small population. Both countries hope to develop their hydropower industries in order to meet domestic demand in the next ten years and sell surplus energy to their neighbours. A considerable amount of this development will be focused in the 3S basin.
Much of the anxiety surrounding the development of these projects is rooted in the fact that there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the full extent of their social and environmental impacts. No major infrastructure project is free of negative impacts, and it is often the case that while harms occur to people and the environment, this is offset by the benefits that the project brings. However, this trade-off needs to be genuine, and based on a sound analysis of all potential negative impacts against concrete benefits. In the case of the 3S dams, it is clear that the research conducted does not support such an analysis. As a matter of urgency, further studies need to be conducted into the cumulative impacts of these projects, in particular the impacts of the drastically changed hydrology on fish migrations and watersheds.
A serious cause for further concern is the lack of publicly available information about plans for the development of the hydropower sector. The process that led up to the approval of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam was characterized by a lack of transparency, and many people feel that they have not been able to make their voices heard by decision-makers. Even now, after the project has been approved, there are conflicting statements about where the generated power will be utilized, and what percentage will be kept for domestic consumption and how much for export. There is even less information available on the other projects proposed for the 3S area, as people are rarely consulted until the EIA stage, and in general very little information is released during thestage of a project. There is no clear information on whether these projects will reduce the cost that consumers will pay for electricity, and in a country with such serious transparency and governance issues as Cambodia, it remains a concern as to how revenues raised will be accounted for and how much will make it back to the national budget.
Poor environmental impact assessments and limited public consultations tend to further fuel anxiety about the impacts of such developments. They also raise concerns about the ability and willingness of developers to mitigate the impacts of their projects, and of the government to strictly enforce environmental regulations. In Cambodia, the development of the hydropower sector continues at pace, and as access to information related to bidding, feasibility studies and the economic justifications is generally unavailable to the public, this development is largely going on behind closed doors. It is generally acknowledged that in the eyes of many developers, and even government bodies, the EIA process is simply a step towards approval, rather than a crucial opportunity to weigh impacts against benefits, seek expert advice and gather public opinion before making a decision to approve or reject a proposed project. This is illustrated starkly in cases where EIAs are not completed until after project approval, or even after project operations have commenced.
It is apparent that the governments of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are impatient to move ahead with hydropower development in the 3S basin and beyond, as power shortages threaten to dampen high growth figures and deter potential investors. The lack of thoroughness in the EIA and public consultation process, and the absence of adequate studies into the long-term and cumulative impacts of these developments are indicative of this rush to push ahead with developments. In addition, it has become apparent that an attitude has emerged that some rivers are already so badly damaged that they are only fit for further exploitation. This is especially true of the Sesan. For example, one Cambodian government official stated in 2007 that as the Sesan River was already so badly damaged by dams on the Vietnamese side of the border, the best locals can hope for is to receive electricity from dams on the Cambodian side. "The river is already destroyed," he said. "The Cambodian people are entitled to get some of the benefits that dams can provide."259 This type of statement neglects the seriousness of impacts the proposed dams inside Cambodia may have on the country's environment, society, and economy.
This scramble to exploit the area's water resources could spell disaster for the region, and its people. Rather than responding to the damage already done to the region's rivers by stepping up exploitation, concerted efforts need to be made to enhance protection of these resources. Not only is the 3S area extremely sensitive in terms of biodiversity, many thousands of people depend on the health of the river basins for their very survival. In recognition of this, a number of local, national and regional initiatives have been working for several years to protect and rehabilitate already damaged ecosystems. However, the current plans for hydropower development in the 3S basins threatens to cancel out the work done by various actors, including national and regional bodies, government departments, civil society and community organizations, and to enhance environmental protection and sustainable use of the area's resources.
Not only are the policies of the 3S countries key to the future development of the area, but outside actors must also be scrutinized to ensure that they are not feeding into potentially harmful development trends. In particular, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has for a number of years been involved in the region's hydropower development and has supported two major studies in the 3S basin, first in 1999, then in 2008. Both studies identified the need for further study of the long-term and cumulative impacts of the three countries' hydropower developments in the 3S area, as well as the need for more collaborative and holistic approach to the development of the region's resources. However, whilst hydropower development pushes on, much of these studies' findings are yet to be acted upon. This has no doubt impacted on the ADB's reluctance to become involved in any specific hydropower projects in the area, but has not dampened its continued support for regional power sharing in the Greater Mekong Subregion, which potentially includes transmission lines connecting to a number of the proposed 3S dams.
Although the focus of this report is mainly on hydropower development within Cambodia, it is important that the concerns raised here are not viewed in isolation, rather as a section of a much broader picture of rapid development in the 3S Basin. This development is continuing in an environment of low accountability and inadequate consultation, and with limited consideration for cumulative and cross-boundary effects. Hydropower developments along the Sesan in Vietnam have already illustrated the need for adequate impact assessments and mitigation measures. However, it is not clear if these potentially valuable lessons have been learned, and without a change in approach to the management of the area's resources, the future of the 3S basin and its people remains uncertain.