Powerless Phnom Penh Struggles With Hot Season

As air-conditioning units slow to a halt, computers die and the lights go out, the frustration of local business owners and organizations in Phnom Penh is boiling over once again as the annual hot season blackouts have arrived.

“We lost power at 11 a.m. [on Wednesday]. By 3 p.m., it hadn’t come back on, so we had to go home,” a staff member at NGO Forum, which is based in the Rus­sian Market area of Phnom Penh, said on Thursday.

“It is happening all the time now,” said Manuel Garcia, operations manager at Boddhi Tree Social Enterprise, which owns sev­eral boutique hotels as well as a bakery and cooking school in Phnom Penh.

“[On Tuesday], we were without electricity for six hours. Cus­tomers want to leave with the loss of Internet and air conditioning; $70 or $80 dollars of food perishable in the heat gets wasted,” he said, adding that his company relies on the state utility to provide power as the cost of equipping each of the business’ properties with an individual generator is prohibitive.

“I have been listening for years to government promises, but the situation is worse than ever.” Mr. Garcia said. “This is 2013, not 2001. Phnom Penh is getting more and more expensive, but services are not improving to match it, which means that it’s becoming less competitive.”

Although Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) forewarned in December that temporary power cuts throughout the dry season would be necessary, the recent spike in blackouts is a sign to some residents that government promises to improve basic services are being broken.

And the power outages are hitting more than just businesses.

Road safety became an issue as traffic lights blacked out along Monivong Boulevard on Mon­day evening and again on Tuesday morning, forcing the city’s blue-uniformed traffic police to manually direct busy rush hour traffic at the Sihanouk Boulevard intersection.

Phnom Penh Municipal spokes­man Long Dimanche said that City Hall had contacted EdC to instruct them to reconnect power to the city’s traffic lights, but quickly added that any issue with Phnom Penh’s erratic power supply was the responsibility of EdC alone.

Power cuts have always been a fixture of life in Phnom Penh, and this year is likely little different from any year in the past.

The 190-megawatt, Chinese-built Kamchay hydropower dam in Kampot province came online in 2011 with the promise of bringing more power to Phnom Penh and helping reduce the country’s energy-supply deficit.

Yet according to an EdC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the media, the Kamchay dam is currently operating at only 10 percent of its capacity because “there is no water” during the dry season. Blackouts were also the result of EdC upgrading power transformers, which required that some sub-stations had to be temporarily cut off, the official said, adding that the upgrade work should be completed by mid-April.

“The upgrades are ongoing, ac­cording to plans that were alr­eady made, and we cannot deviate from the plan,” the EdC official said.

Though the government has announced grand plans for hy­dropower as a means to solve Cambodia’s electricity shortages, the seasonal water shortages in dams expose a flaw in the government’s energy-development plan, critics say.

Meach Mean, coordinator for local environmental group 3S Rivers Protection Network, said that even the massive 400-megawatt Sesan 2 dam project in Stung Treng province, approved by the National Assembly on February 15, could expect to also suffer from water shortages during dry season—the very time that power is needed most to keep people cool.

“Dams need water,” Mr. Mean said. “But the fact is, Cambodia is much better suited to solar energy than hydropower,” he said.

Michael Shaw, an independent renewable energy adviser who worked with NGO Engineers Without Borders in Cambodia, said that even with the nine new hydropower dams in the pipeline, Phnom Penh and other cities are growing at a pace that will exceed that supply.

The consequence, he said, is that people on the city’s fringes will continue to experience electricity shortages, so “the reliance on diesel-powered generators will continue and may even increase.”

Sao Moun Doung, general manager at the White Mansion boutique hotel on Street 240, believes that although the blackouts are a problem, in the long run things are improving, and pa­tience is required.

“Since 1999, things here are getting better,” she said. “But things happen slowly.”

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