Power plan offers light relief to Cambodia

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Frequent blackouts force households to eat by candlelight

By Guy Delauney
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh comes alive in the early evening. The sweltering heat of daytime dies down a little, giving people a chance to venture outside without immediately becoming drenched in sweat.

It is a time to enjoy the streetside restaurants, and browse through the shops and markets. But all too often this pleasure is interrupted by a familiar, unwelcome event known locally as a "daipleung".

Cafes go dark, music cuts out abruptly and whole streets erupt in groans and shrieks of dismay.

Once again Phnom Penh's electricity supply has proved unequal to the demands of a growing, increasingly power-hungry city.

Struggling to cope

Three decades of war left Cambodia's infrastructure damaged and dilapidated.

The return of peace has brought double-digit growth over most of the past decade, but the spread of new industries, air conditioners and electronic equipment has left the national electricity company struggling to cope.

"If you look at developed countries, annual growth in demand is in single digits, but we've been facing a 20 to 25% increase; that's a big jump," says the government official in charge of Electricite du Cambodge (EDC), Keo Rottanak.

"That increase in demand gives us a tremendous burden. There is not enough generation and no grid to distribute to different locations when there's a shortage."

Generating demand

The impact on business is considerable. Without a reliable mains electricity supply, companies are left with two choices; buy a generator or face a shutdown every time there is a blackout.

Large-scale enterprises like garment factories and big hotels generally opt for the generator.

The fuel costs incurred are considerable - but still preferable to losing customers because orders are not ready on time or guest rooms lack power.

Smaller businesses have more of a dilemma.

Ngaiy Tan Hun's family noodle-making business in the centre of Phnom Penh is typically ill-equipped to deal with prolonged blackouts.

"When there's a power cut production stops," she says.

"On a normal day we can cope with power cuts - but during festival and holiday times demand increases and so blackouts then are big problem."

Symbol of hope

Phnom Penh is in fact better off than most of Cambodia.

Only about a fifth of the population has access to mains electricity. The rest make do with expensive local supplies driven by generators, or run small appliances and lights from 12-volt car batteries.

The dearth of power is a major disincentive to investors.

Apart from the garment industry, there is little large-scale manufacturing in Cambodia.

Reliable, affordable electricity may help to bring in more industries, and give the country's growth-base some sorely-needed diversity.

So the pylons which are steadily marching their way from the border with Vietnam towards Phnom Penh are a symbol of hope.

Cambodia's larger neighbour will supply the power which could bring an end to the blackouts - and electricity to areas which previously had none.

Light relief

The deal was brokered by the Asian Development Bank, which also put up around half of the $100m (£61m) it cost to erect the pylons, connect the power lines and build the substations.

It should be just a matter of weeks before the project goes live.

"Immediately we will be able to supplement what we are short of now," says EDC's Keo Rottanak.

"It is the first segment of a national grid that we have ever had in Cambodian history. People who have been looking for power will have their dreams come true."

There may still be power cuts as the new system is brought online, but they should be the last blackouts Phnom Penh will see for some time.

That will be a relief for families and businesses alike, though not perhaps for the sellers of generators and emergency lights.

Vietnam still suffers occasional blackouts of its own, making the sale of power to its neighbour a little ironic.

But the new transmission lines run both ways. So if, in the future, Cambodia has a power surplus it should be able to return the favour.


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