SIHANOUKVILLE — Cambodia’s industrial future is largely focused on this port city on the Gulf of Thailand, making it ground zero for the country’s climate conundrum.
Thousands of miles away in Glasgow, Scotland, Environment Minister Say Sam Al reiterated this week Cambodia’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gasses by 42% before 2030 — and noted the government has commissioned 400MW of solar projects and placed a moratorium on new coal power plants.
“Climate change, like [the] pandemic, has no border and our presence here signifies shared concern and reassurance that we, as the world leaders, are not losing sight of our shared responsibility for climate action,” Say Sam Al said during a speech at COP26. “Cambodia feels the crises directly and takes them seriously.”
It’s hard to square those pledges with the reality on the ground here in Sihanoukville, where climate change is low on the list of priorities, despite coastal communities being among the most vulnerable to its effects.
Two massive coal plants producing a combined 1,400 MW of energy are scheduled to be built in the coming years and the rapid development of downtown is already causing unprecedented flooding.
The government says the coal plants are needed to provide energy security to the largely Chinese-financed factories near the city and the area’s growing population, while they blame the flooding on heavier-than-usual rain. And both may be true.
But those advocating for the environment, human rights and quality of life for citizens, want to see the government take a more collaborative and thoughtful approach to the country’s industrial and urban development.
Sally Yozell, director of the environmental security program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, said it’s essential to engage communities — local leaders, scientists, business people, farmers and fishers — in developing climate policy.
“Otherwise, you just get a big hotel or roads or some port just built in the middle of some place without the local knowledge and understanding how the ecosystems work,” she said.
“Now it would be a real shame if economic development is prioritized over protection from climate change,” Yozell added.
Sihanoukville’s skyline is symbolic of Cambodia’s development over the past five years — rapid, funded by China, and of questionable sustainability. What was a slow-moving backpacker retreat just a decade ago is now a Chinese business hub with multiple high rises under construction at any given time.
And the coal plants that will power this new industrial hub not only add to Cambodia’s net emissions for decades to come, they also will pollute the surrounding air and have an immediate effect on populations living nearby, noted Ham Oudom, a freelance environmental consultant.
“It is necessary to study the impacts of coal plants as we focus on economic growth, but we have to think about the well-being of people and society,” he said.
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said the government had “studied carefully” the impact of the planned coal plants and would monitor operations moving forward.
“Coal-fired plants are an option for the royal government of Cambodia now since we don’t have enough energy sources to ensure energy security,” he said. “The operating companies have followed the set requirements.”
Cambodia joined dozens of other countries last month in committing to stop licensing new coal plants, however it is moving ahead with a series of Chinese-backed projects approved in the past few years — which includes the two plants in Sihanoukville and two others in Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces, with a combined capacity of some 2,000MW.
The British Embassy in Cambodia welcomed Cambodia agreeing to the moratorium, but added: “We continue to encourage Cambodia to reconsider plants that are currently underway and prioritise new renewable energy sources.”
The environment minister’s pledges at COP26 also did not appear to impress Tina Redshaw, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Cambodia, who called the speech “a missed opportunity to show leadership and ambition ahead of ASEAN Chairmanship.”
Fire and floods
The coal plants are just one symptom of the climate conundrum in Sihanoukville, as more severe storms and floods threaten coastal areas.
Cambodia’s sea level could rise by more than half a meter by 2090, inundating 25,000 hectares and forcing thousands to relocate, according to the government’s 2013 Climate Change Strategic Plan.
Sihanoukville’s capacity to withstand heavy rain was tested in August, when floods killed a resident and inundated dozens of houses, leaving locals worried about the future.
Sun Chenda, 47, who has lived in Sihanoukville for more than 20 years, said her house was flooded by almost half a meter of water after the rains overwhelmed drains and sewers.
“I thought my house will not be flooded anymore after a new development with roads. But it is still flooded and the water is even higher,” she said.
Khun Sokly, 46, said neighbors helped her move her fruit stall to higher ground when the rains came in August. It took hours before the roads were passable again.
“Before it didn’t flood here. I don’t know what could help prevent floods. But if the drain is bigger, maybe it can help,” she recently told VOA Khmer.
Heng Kimhong, head of the research and advocacy program for the Cambodian Youth Network, said the government was inviting disaster if it doesn’t create larger reservoirs to absorb severe rainstorms combined with rising sea level.
“There should be consideration about what areas can be developed with high buildings and what areas can’t, since there is a rising sea level forecasted with the sea floods, not only rainfall floods,” Heng Kimhong said.
Provincial hall spokesperson Kheang Phearum said the flash floods in August were due to the intensity of the rain, not because of inadequate drains or sewers.
Hak Mao, director of the Department of Climate Change of the Environment Ministry, said the infrastructure in Sihanoukville was strong enough to handle it.
“The infrastructure that we have built in Sihanoukville considers the impacts of climate change in the area,” Hak Mao said.
Whether Cambodia can achieve its goal of reducing overall emissions while dramatically increasing coal power is an open question that will largely depend on its ability to curb deforestation.
“By 2030, loss of forestry and other land use will account for 49% of Cambodia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions followed by the energy sector (22%) and agriculture (17.5%),” the Asia Development Bank wrote in an article published in August.
Ham Oudom, the environmental consultant, said how much of an impact the government’s coal moratorium will depend on which types of energy it turns to instead.
Ham Oudom added that Cambodia’s “nationally determined contributions” to emissions reductions remained vague. And he noted the “a serious lack of transparency and accountability in the implementation and consultation” around the environmental impact of new projects.
During his speech in Scotland last week, Say Sam Al said Cambodia’s success in meeting its goals would largely depend on financing and support from wealthier countries.
Cambodia was among a number of highly vulnerable but relatively poor countries that used the opportunity to push for more than the current $100 billion annual pledge from developed countries.
“International climate finance is also far from required scale, particularly for adaptation and is difficult to access for most vulnerable countries,” Say Sam Al said, calling for increased funding and easier access.
Otherwise, the minister told conference attendees, all the talk of climate resilience and disaster management and would be only “empty talk.”
(additional reporting Say Mony in Washington DC)