The electric village. Cambodia.

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From buffalo power to hydro. Rapid change is occurring in Bakong, Cambodia. But have all the options been explored? What are the real costs of huge hydro schemes?

The photo above was taken just 400 metres from our school gates. The Duon Teav village in Bakong is 14kms east of Siem Reap, the main tourist city of Cambodia and the gateway to Angkor Wat. The village is situated on historic land governed by the Apsara Authority which generally restricts development and seeks to maintain the heritage quality of the district: after all it is home (just a few hundred meters away from Savong’s School) to the first temples, the Rolous Group, of the Angkor Empire. Locals hold their weddings there: imagine that – having a thousand year old temple on your doorstep.

But this year I noticed a change each evening as I rode back from the school. Sun sets very quickly in tropical Cambodia so in the evening instead of a long lingering twilight, the countryside is pitch dark within 30 minutes of the sun falling. The soundscape is very much alive however, with insects, frogs, the murmur of small motorbikes navigating the dirt roads slowly, and the sound of families preparing dinner. Not far from the school these families may be lit by firelight from their charcoal burning cooking fires. There may be low wattage lights driven by 12v car batteries.

Along the road, suddenly, these families are lit up with the brilliant white of eco-bulbs: insects swarming in a boisterous living halo. Electric mains power is coming to Bakong. Step by step, new power poles are marching into this rural landscape.

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Sign of progress. A new power pole. These days Bakong villages are eagerly awaiting the arrival of electric power. For one thing – cooking may save the use of scant charcoal/timber resources.

Locals welcome the arrival of power, just as surely as my grandparents welcomed electricity to their rural homes in New Zealand. In particular electricity may help obviate the need for charcoal and the use of precious timber in Cambodia. But I can’t help but think that Cambodia might have taken a different route. With mains power, it is doubtful if in this community that solar energy will now be adopted, for example.

When I flew into Siem Reap I sat next to a man from Myanmar, and he and a few others on the flight were attending a big regional solar energy conference that pointed, I felt, to an interesting alternative to the big centralised mindset that accompanies hydro power.  Cambodia needs electricity for sure, but if the nation puts all of its eggs in the hydro-basket, then it buys into a risk. To finance hydro schemes the Government probably needs to trade away certain rights – for example in flooding valleys and displacing locals.  I fear that Cambodia’s leadership is buying into a 1960s viewpoint and possibly missing the opportunity to take an ultimately less risky path of diversifying the power model – being reliant on hydro to some extent, but also fostering a network of solar villages and thereby reducing national debt while employing the ample solar energy of Cambodia.

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