Massive Sambo Dam will destroy livelihoods and Mekong fisheries, but better energy options exist

“No water, no life. You cannot do anything without water, no water to drink, no water to grow vegetables. We will die,” said Po (Uncle) Than, a local farmer.

In September 2016, we traveled to visit a local community in Sambo district, Kratie province. We, students, knew that the Cambodian government was planning to build the 3,300 MW Sambo Dam on the mainstream Mekong River inside Cambodia, and the biggest dam in the country. But the local villagers didn’t know, and had not been informed by either the government or the developers.

Listening to many local villagers, we heard their frustration that if the dam is built, the river will be disrupted, and there will be less fish and food. With their fish gone, they do not know how else to make a livelihood and sustain their lives.

The Sambo Dam is the largest of the proposed dams planned by the Government of Cambodia, and part of the dam cascade in the mainstream Mekong River. According to the Mekong River Commission’s 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment, more than 20,000 people will be displaced and negatively impacted by the Sambo Dam, in Sambo district, Kratie province.

The U.S.-based environmental organization, the International Rivers (IRs) has said its construction would be a “tragic and costly mistake”. IRs has explained that, if built, the Sambo Dam would block major fish migrations between Southern Laos and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, destroy critical deep pool fish habitats, and interrupt the river’s hydrological, sediment and nutrient cycles, impacting the river’s wider ecology. The dam would spell the demise of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) who depend on the river habitat for their survival. The dolphins inhabit a 190km stretch of the mainstream Mekong River between Kratie, Cambodia and Khone Falls on the border with Lao PDR.

“Our way of living is deeply connected with the natural environment and resources. If the Sambo Dam is built, it would block fish migrations. There would be more river bank erosion and less sediment in the river to fertilize our farming soil, the whole ecosystem will change. Our Kouy cultures will be seriously affected,” said the village chief of Domrae village, Sambo district, Kratie province.

The Kouy indigenous people, who have been living for generations in the area that will be impacted by the dam, are very skilled fishers and farmers. The Kouy people believe that if they respect the spirit of nature, take good care of nature, then nature will take good care of them as well.

In January 2016, the government released a statement stating that “until 2020, there will be no construction of hydropower dams. But in January 2017, the government gave permission to a Cambodian company, the Royal Group Company to conduct a study of socio-environmental impacts of the Sambo dam. The dam project is now well underway.

Vegetables along the river bank during the dry season in Domrae village on the Mekong River island of Koh Thnout. The island is right near the Sambo Dam site, Sambo district. (Photo by Ah Leak.)

The Sambo dam was proposed as part of the national energy strategy plans aiming to generate electricity to supply people’s need, so that the country no longer needs to purchase power from Vietnam, Thailand, and Lao PDR. The Cambodia Country Report of 2015 suggests that Cambodia has 10,000 MW of hydropower potential, of which 4,931 MW will be developed by 2020.[1]

As the energy demand in Cambodia is expected to continue to grow, driven by industrialization and urbanization, it is projected that hydropower plants will be the major source of power generation in the country – contributing an increased share of the total energy from 36.1% in 2012 to 83% in 2035.[2]

Currently, Cambodia operates six hydropower dams in four provinces in Koh Kong, Pursat, Kampong Speu, and Kampot. Those dams are supplying about 1,000 MW of energy annually, roughly 62 percent of the nation’s total electricity production. The proposed 3,300 MW Sambo Dam is next on the list.

Impacts on the indigenous communities

Po Than, is one of the Kouy indigenous farmers who will be affected by the Sambo dam. He is a quiet person. Every day he takes care of his vegetable and poultry farms. During his free time, he makes traditional fishing gears made of bamboo to catch fish for his family. Most families in his village cultivate organic vegetables and provide community-based ecotourism services.

“Why does the government want to take our fishing and farming away from us?” asked Po Than. Moreover, the local people will be relocated to a new village so they will lose everything they had: their lands; farms; houses; and livelihoods.

Po Than harvesting cucumbers from his farm. His wife takes them for sale at the local market. (Photo by Ah Leak.)

“I don’t need to spend much money on food daily. My husband always catches some fish and we also raise chicken. We have vegetables from my farm. The Mekong River’s forest, and my farms, are my personal market,” said Ming (Auntie) Sarom, the Po Than’s wife.

Contrary to Po Than, his wife Ming Sarom is a very talkative person. She sells products from their farms at the Sambo market, and often she is also helping groups of tourists to visit their village. Like with the other villagers, Ming Sarom was not aware of their rights and not yet fully informed about the pros and cons of the Sambo hydropower project.

Based on the Free, Prior, Informed and Consent principle established by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), indigenous people have the rights to be fully informed on issues that relate to their secure, safe and healthy living environment, and also rights to express their concerns. The indigenous community needs to agree to the project, if not it cannot proceed. “I have no clear information about the project. There is no official information or letter from the government about building the Sambo dam,” said Ming Sarom.

She continued: “If the government builds the dam, I will lose my land, farms, and food security. My ancestors were also buried here on this land. Why does the government need to build the dam while my villages will not get any benefit?”

Ming Sarom showing her young daughter how to harvest cucumbers from their vegetable garden located close to the Mekong River. (Photo by Ah Leak).

Cleaner and safer energy alternatives

Do we really need to destroy people’s livelihoods and natural resources to get electricity? Is there a better alternative to the destruction to be caused by the Sambo dam?

In 2013, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen launched the Cambodian Climate Change Strategic Plan 2014-2023 (CCCSP), the National Policy for Green Growth 2013-2030 (NPGG), and the National Strategic Plan for Green Grow 2013-2030 (NSPFF). All these plans and policy actions in the energy sector are meant to support the greener and more inclusive economic growth, along with increasing renewable energy uptake.

With an average sunshine of 6-9 hours per day, Cambodia can get an average of 5 kWh/day; meanwhile, the estimated energy consumption is 55 kWh per capita. Thus, solar power is a potential energy source for Cambodia.3

The 2016 WWF Report on Sustainable Energy Scenario for Cambodia demonstrates that by 2050, it is feasible to supply almost 90% of energy from renewable sources, especially solar and wind.

Also, according to a WWF report in 2016, about 6.9 million people in Cambodia have no access to reliable electricity or cannot afford to pay for it. Solar and wind energy can provide reliable, safe and environmentally clean electricity services to rural areas, and also at an affordable cost.[4]

In Svay Rieang province, for example, a large-scale solar farm operates with 10 megawatts and is able to meet roughly a quarter of Bavet city’s local energy demand, half of which is currently being met through energy imports from Vietnam, according to an ADB report. Also, the project will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually and create jobs for the local community as well as increase energy efficiency.

Given the huge negative impacts of the Sambo Dam, Ming Sarom is urging the government to consider building alternative energy plants rather than this large, destructive hydropower dam.

Po Than added: “The Mekong river is the blood stream that feeds millions of people in this country. The Sambo dam will make us suffer. Why does the government not think about other ways to produce electricity that does not destroy our lives and livelihoods?”


[1] Vuthy, L. (2015), ‘Cambodia Country Report ’, in Kimura, S. and H. Phoumin (eds ), Energy Outlook and Energy Saving Potential in East Asia. ERIA Research Project Report 2014 – 33, Jakarta: ERIA, pp. 77 – 88. Retrieved from:
[2] Ibid.
[3] Heng Kunleang. (April 2007). ‘Rural Electrification by Renewable Energy in Cambodia, Energy Development Department, Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy. Vientiane, Lao PDR. Retrieved from:
[4] Ibid.


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