Reflections from the Areng Valley

Sydney Johnson and Monica Elizondo
Areng Valley, site of the proposed Cheay Areng Dam
Areng Valley, site of the proposed Cheay Areng Dam
Diversityphotos (Flickr/ Creative Commons)

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most culturally, environmentally and economically diverse regions. As countries in the region face rapid growth, they are developing their use of advanced technologies that promote profitable energy supply. Governments and private corporations are increasingly turning to hydroelectric power to address this need. However, many such projects have received stark criticism from activists, environmentalists and economists, both in the region and around the world.

As part of a final project for a Geography and Environmental Science Policy & Management course at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, entitled “Water Resources and the Environment” and taught by Dr. Laurel Larsen, we researched the social, economic and environmental implications of hydroelectric power in Southeast Asia. Specifically, our group, which consisted of four undergraduate students from UC Berkeley’s Geography and Environmental Economics departments, focused on the Cheay Areng Dam, proposed for development in the Areng River Valley in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia.

Using online resources, books, documentary footage and interviews with experts on Southeast Asian economics and development, we compiled a collection of research in the form of a website, which can be viewed here. Throughout this process, each of us gained a better understanding of this unique region, its deep and complex history, and how large-scale development projects like the Cheay Areng Dam often come with devastating effects for local and indigenous peoples and the environment, despite their lucrative potential for developers.

Approximately 60 million people live within the Lower Mekong Basin, comprising over 95 ethnic groups, and depend on the Mekong and other rivers for subsistence through fishing and local agriculture. In Cambodia, the Areng River Valley in Koh Kong Province is home to the Chong ethnic group, one of the "original Khmer" groups believed to have lived in the valley for more than 400 years, as well as endangered species and mountainous jungles. The area provides food and traditional fishing jobs for indigenous populations.

The proposed hydroelectric project on the Cheay Areng Dam threatens many of these important resources. If the dam is built, the valley will be flooded by a 10,000-hectare reservoir, and more than 1200 Chong people will be forcibly removed from their sacred land.

Throughout our research, we paid special attention to the Chong people's strong local movement against the dam development, which has been aided by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Mother Nature. The Chong people have been actively resisting the creation of this dam through organized, peaceful protests.[i]

The dam, proposed for construction by Chinese hydropower company Sinohydro, is expected to cost about $327 million US dollars. Proponents of the dam point to its potential to create urbanization, decrease poverty, increase incomes and allow for greater consumption rates. The dam is expected to generate 108 megawatts (MW) of power,[ii] but it’s not clear the energy is needed: current and future projects reveal that Cambodia’s energy demand will likely not absorb the projected supply.

Full moon ceremony at Prolay Temple, Areng Valley
Full moon ceremony at Prolay Temple, Areng Valley
International Rivers

The community protests were successful. In February 2015, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a suspension on development of the project, stating that no decision would be taken to move forward during the current governmental term. While a win for the people’s campaign and movement, the move leaves considerable uncertainty about the future of the valley and its people. 

While conducting our research, we were struck by the complexities of the benefits and burdens surrounding the dam’s construction. We observed grossly uneven power dynamics, and noticed how the voices of affected communities were excluded from the decision-making process. Even considering the potential opportunities and benefits for stakeholders involved in the project and the importance of development in poor countries, the negative impacts of the project are pressing and difficult to discount.

The short and long-term benefits of projects such as the Cheay Areng Dam tend to fall in the hands of those in power, and the hardships are most often placed disproportionately on local indigenous populations and the environment. More equitable and sustainable solutions to meeting needs for energy and economic development can and must be created.

Sydney Johnson and Monica Elizondo are undergraduate students in UC Berkeley’s Geography and Environmental Economics Department.

[i] Zsomber, Peter, Narim Khoun. 2015. “Hydropower Dam Puts a Way of Life at Risk.” The Cambodia Daily. Accessed February 28, 2016.

[ii] ‘Stung Cheay Areng Hydropower Dam Project’ 2010. Aid Data. Accessed March 29, 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016