Food Security be Dammed: Cambodia Trades Fish for Energy

10 October 2018 Adam Brak, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


The Lower Sesan 2 Dam (“LS2”, or “the dam”), located 26 kilometres east of the Sesan-Mekong River confluence in Stung Treng province, began electricity generation in November 2017. It is scheduled to be fully operational in October 2018.

The dam has attracted significant controversy. There have been many protests over the displacement of people, as thousands are forcibly relocated to make way for reservoir flooding. Additionally, environmental assessments have testified to the negative implications of such a large project on the natural geography and fish stocks of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers. These implications extend downstream to the Mekong River, Tonlé Sap Lake and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, which are physically, culturally and spiritually important to both Cambodians and South-East Asia as a whole.

Fish are a critical source of income for communities along the Sesan River and a staple source of protein for all of Cambodia. The dam threatens to drastically reduce Cambodian fish stocks, which will undermine food security, particularly among the rural poor.


The LS2 blocks the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, both major tributaries of the Mekong, resulting in the flooding of swathes of land. This flooding has necessitated the resettlement of around 5,000 villagers, most of them indigenous or belonging to minority ethnic groups. The compensation package offered to facilitate the resettlement was the choice of: a 1,000 square metre plot of land and a prefabricated 80 square metre house at a designated resettlement site; US$6,000 in cash to build a house at a resettlement site; or US$10,000.

None of these options adequately addressed the food insecurity that now faces the displaced communities; their former village communities on the banks of, or floating on, the Sesan River had fertile soils and ample fish stocks. The allocated resettlement sites, on the other hand, are inadequate in quality and quantity by comparison. The sites have less land, are infertile and far away from the water sources necessary for agricultural development. Villagers that have already been resettled have to travel off-site to tend to their livestock, reducing their productivity. Farmers who attempt to continue agricultural production on site now have to pay for water to tend their crops. Due to a decline in production quantity and quality, many do not have the money to do so.

The issue is compounded by the fact that the reservoir created by the dam necessitated the dismantling of the only bridge in the area that crossed the Srepok River. The bridge facilitated access to the nearest town in the region, Stung Treng, so access to markets (among other assets, like medical facilities) for affected villagers in the flooded region is severely limited and food insecurity has increased.

The dam, therefore, creates serious food security issues, although on a comparatively small scale; the threat the dam poses to fish stocks further downstream in the Mekong, however, has broader consequences. Cambodia is a country with a deep agricultural tradition. Regular rainfall, fertile soils and friendly economic relations with food-rich neighbours, mean that food insecurity is not currently a pervasive problem nationally. Natural disasters, a rapidly increasing population and poverty, however, are all factors that leave the population vulnerable to shocks that could make food insecurity a potential future problem.

Falling fish stocks qualify as such a shock; fish account for approximately 80 per cent of the average Cambodian’s protein intake, meaning that any effects on fish supplies disproportionately affect the population, compared to changes in other agricultural commodities (with perhaps the exception of rice, another significant crop). There is little doubt that LS2 coming online at full capacity will indeed affect fish supplies. Studies predict that, on completion, the dam will decrease fish yields by as much as nine per cent across the entirety of the Mekong Basin. Reduced fish levels will negatively affect the nutrition and access to food of the average Cambodian; this, in turn, will reduce the considerable income stream that the Cambodian fishing industry provides.

Both effects will disproportionately impact Cambodia’s significant and primarily agrarian lower class, due to their heavy reliance, for both food and income, on fish and river- and lake-based agriculture. Nor are these effects limited to the Sesan/Srepok Rivers themselves. As the Sesan is a major tributary of the Mekong River, the dam’s operations act as a barrier to fish migration, which affects downstream productivity as far south as Tonlé Sap Lake and the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Tonlé Sap Lake is one of the world’s most productive inland freshwater fisheries; reducing its economic value and its potential to feed a large part of the country, presents a big problem for national food security. The Mekong Delta, similarly, is regarded as the ‘rice bowl of South-East Asia’ and hampering its development while the Vietnamese population is increasing rapidly potentially bodes ill for relations between Cambodia and Vietnam.

Despite these drawbacks to the dam, its positive implications are also extensive. LS2 has the potential to generate US$30 million per annum in tax revenue, create a job market for skilled workers and supply all of north-east Cambodia with cheap and reliable electricity, thereby reducing its reliance on energy imports. These are not insignificant benefits, given the relatively high cost and unreliability of energy in Cambodia.

There is also the economic stimulus that investment in such an infrastructure project can provide. The eighth turbine going online in October 2018 will only increase these benefits. The government’s dedication to maximising these benefits, however, does not offset Cambodia’s subversion of its own alleged commitment to improving national food security.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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