Climate change, Kampot, Cambodia

Climate Change – Kampot – Cambodia


The debate over climate change rages among the commoners but within the near-consensus of the scientific community the question has long been settled. 97% of climate scientists are in agreement on the matter, most of the remaining 3% are in the employ of the extractive fossil industry. In the eyes of the deniersphere, that hotbed of alternative facts, the 97% have created a hoax to further their own careers. These people, who’ve spent eight years in rigorous study to earn their doctorates, who’ve immersed their lives in science and the scientific method somehow all decided independently (or maybe they have a secret network) to essentially go back on all the principles they studied so hard to learn and just lie, make things up to create cushy jobs for themselves. Baloney, absurd, ridiculous, doesn’t pass the smell test, a non-sequiter. Meanwhile, they have no problem trusting the tiny part of the scientific community that’s being paid to spread industry propaganda.

In the above regard the ultimate crime is owned by Exxon, as they knew back in the late 1970s that, according to their own researchers, build up of CO2 in the atmosphere was going to be a problem. The bosses didn’t take kindly to that information as acting on it would eliminate their profit base so they spent some $30 million in the next couple of decades funding climate denial. The company is now being sued by some 14 attorneys general because of the damage that misinformation has done.

What does a warming climate mean for Cambodia? The Super El Nino of last year is an indicator of some of the changes we can expect. The El Nino phenomenon is caused by a warming of tropical Pacific waters and that brings us drought; super refers to ocean temps that were much warmer than typical El Nino warm. Last year brought water shortages in many places, a delay in planting crops and the highest temp ever recorded in Cambodia, 41.7C or 107F. Subsequent to El Nino we had a neutral or very mild La Nina that brought us ample rain, but it’s very weak and we may be headed right back into another difficult El Nino. The oceans are warming, which might have cancelled out the preferred, otherwise more likely La Nina conditions.

Being near the sea Kampot will never get as warm as the interior, though still plenty hot enough, but we also have other climate change problems to deal with. Rising seas being the number 1. There’s been a lot of glacial melt feeding the oceans and water expands as it warms and we sit very close to sea level. Sea level rise is already happening: In the Mekong delta salt water has intruded up to 100 kms inland, rendering rice cultivation impossible in those areas. It’ll probably be a long time before the sea rises to permanently flood our town, but regular flooding events might not be uncommon and require sea walls and other defenses to save our little burg.

Climate Change doesn’t preclude extremes of cold. Every time it’s cold somewhere, deniers will say, Global warming my ass, it was really cold here yesterday. Almost every day of the year there’ll be some places that are exceptionally cold as well as hot, but what we are seeing now is about 10 record highs for every record low.

In the process of debating the issue, I’ve done quite a bit of research.

The first graph shows rise in global temps from 1880 to the present.


This chart is from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s for November, not the whole year. I didn’t realize that at first, but now that the Trump administration has scrubbed the site of any mention of climate change, the annual one is no longer available. The annual one would be very similar, except it would be more evened out. The last 40 years would be the same, showing a relentless climb, but notice the highest high is much further from the average than the lowest low. If you separated out the first 100 years you’d see a normal up and down pattern.

This next graph shows global temperatures and CO2 on the top two lines.


As you can see they track very closely. When one is up, the other is up and vice versa. It doesn’t matter in this context which came first, they go together. It also is of no import what triggered those changes, though I’d certainly be interested to know. When the earth is in a deep ice age the CO2 ranges around 180 to 200. There’s a lot less vegetation, so less CO2. I was quite surprised to see that most of the last 400,000 years have been much colder than we’re used to. If we hadn’t pumped so much CO2 in the atmosphere, based on looking at the past, we might well have been slated for much colder times. I expect we’ll skip the next ice age until the earth regains its balance. Just speculation, I’m not a scientist.

It’s not changes in the sun’s intensity that have caused global warming. Solar intensity has been declining of late even as temperatures have been rising.


In the last 10,000 years or so, the time we know of as civilization, CO2 has ranged between 260 and 280 ppm and temperatures have been in that Cinderella range of not too hot or too cold. Sure, during that period there were very cold times, mini ice ages, if you will, and droughts and very hot times, but temps did not stray very far from average.

Since the industrial revolution CO2 has risen to 400ppm, way above the top line in the graph. There’s no possible, plausible natural way for that to have happened in such a short time frame absent the burning of fossil fuel producing greenhouse gases.

The last time CO2 was that high was at least 800,000 years ago, some sources say up to 20m years, and at that time the temperature was 3C higher. Most of the recent extra greenhouse-caused heat has gone into the oceans. They act as a giant heat sink absorbing vast amounts of CO2 so it should take quite a long time to reach that 3C threshold. So far temps have risen only less than 1 degree and already climate extremes are playing havoc with the earth’s natural systems. Even the relatively small amount of rising water temps has had devastating effects. A very large portion of the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has bleached and died from rising temperatures and that’s being replicated in many reefs around the world. We are still pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and there seems no end to how high CO2 levels will go. Countries are giving themselves decades to clean up their acts when we’ve already hit the danger zone.

Rising sea temperatures intensify tropical storms. Last year a tropical storm in very warm waters off the coast of Mexico intensified from a category 1 storm with 125kph winds to a superstorm of 360kph winds in just 24 hours, breaking all records for wind speed and speed of intensification. It was a small storm and luckily hit off a remote, sparsely inhabited coast so damage was minimal.

If temps in every part of the planet rose proportionally, GW would be relatively easy to handle, but what it really does is accentuate the extremes of droughts and floods. As temps rise air holds increasing amounts of water so when it does rain we can expect more intense rain events. Higher temps also means increasing evaporation so the land dries out faster.

What I don’t get is why anyone would think burning lots of coal is a good idea even if CO2 were not problem. What is it about pollution and land degradation that makes them so giddy? A friend said, We’ve got 500 years of coal and cheap electricity, why bother with renewables?

Do they get a rush when they see pics of smog in Beijing? That smog is one reason why coal is cheap, since a large part of the cost of burning coal is externalized; for instance, the cost of treating people with respiratory problems caused by pollution from coal burning is not included in the cost of the coal; everybody else – governments, individuals – pays it, so in the end result, it’s not actually cheap.

Even if burning coal did not create a greenhouse gas, there are lots of other reasons why it’s a terrible idea. For one, the oceans absorb a lot of CO2, turning the water more acidic, which then plays havoc with shellfish who are having difficulty making their shells in that acidic water. Are we willing to give up shellfish for the sake of cheap energy from fossil fuels?

Every stage of the use of coal to generate electricity is an environmental challenge.

And now with the widespread use of fracking to extract gas and oil, they’re not much better than the coal alternative since large amounts of methane is released in the process. Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 on a twenty year timetable. It’s not as prevalent as CO2, and it doesn’t last as long, but the warming of the arctic where temps have risen much faster than in temperate and tropical regions has the potential to create a methane bomb since very large amounts are locked up in permafrost and ice. Also very often fracking pollutes ground water: it’s being permanently destroyed (at least for thousands of years) for the sake of profits today, is that a worthy, intelligent trade-off?

Nonetheless, coal is still the worst. Formerly coal was produced in deep mines – still is in places like China. They were terrible for the worker’s health, but a least they didn’t impact the surface. Today all new mines in the western world are either open pit or mountain top removal. If you’re in the Australian outback where the land is desert scrub and nobody cares much about it and it’s far from any place where people live, then as ugly as the mine may be and as destructive as it is to the landscape, not much fuss is made about it and nobody has to witness the scars upon it.

That’s how it’s done in the American west, but in Appalachia in the east coal is extracted via mountain top removal. What they do is take a mountain covered with trees, strip it bare then use dynamite to blow off its top. They then push the remaining debris into the nearby streambed polluting the stream with heavy metals and destroying it for at least hundreds of generations. What’s left after the coal has been removed is a moonscape. Sure, if the miners took the time to save the topsoil so it could be replaced after they finished their extraction and kept the rocky debris out of the streambed it could regenerate in a few generations, but of course they don’t since that would cost a lot of money and the coal would no longer be cheap.

Then there’s transporting the fossil fuel. Oil and gas go in pipelines, notorious for leaking. In addition, oil pipelines in cold areas need to be heated to keep the oil flowing. Coal is usually moved in huge coal trains or shipped around the world. All movement of fossil fuels requires lots of energy.

Then the burning of fossil fuels, but especially coal, produces other pollutants besides CO2. And finally, after you burn coal you still have mountains of toxic coal ash to deal with.

Fortunately, in an amazingly short time wind and solar have become competitive in cost and in the US they make up the majority of new energy sources. Unfortunately, the forces of regression in the US are trying to make solar more expensive: in Nevada, for instance, the Republican state legislature wants to penalize people who install solar (Wanna guess who’s financing their campaigns?). Still, the movement’s unstoppable. Economically, in many parts of the world, it no longer makes sense to build new fossil fuel facilities.

Deniers complain about the cost: Converting is too expensive, it’s not worth it, they say. We can’t afford it. Not worth spending the money to have a clean environment? It definitely wouldn’t be cheap. One trillion dollars a year for a decade would still leave much of the US dependent on fossil fuels, but the country would be a long ways towards a clean environment and provide millions of jobs that can’t be outsourced. One trillion dollars is only about 7% of GDP.

Cambodia is trying to get most of its electricity from hydropower, which is good in theory except when the dams reduce fish populations. Cambodians get 80% of their protein from fish. A government spokesman once said, The people will be happy to have cheap electricity, but I’d bet they’d rather have fish to catch and eat. The other major problem with depending on hydro is drought. In the hottest months, when electricity is needed most, there’s insufficient water to generate much power.

It’s the Chinese who are financing and building coal power plants here. It’s really not the thing to do in today’s world, but they come ‘free’. In quotes because the Chinese drive hard bargains. Most such contracts to build and operate power plants (and not just the Chinese) include clauses that guarantee the builder a certain minimum profit, whether the plant is used or not. We’ll have to pay for that power even if we don’t want it.

The people in government love coal, but Cambodia has great potential for solar and hopefully someone will step up to produce large-scale solar power here. We do have a company in Cambodia – Star8 – that produces solar buses and tuk-tuks. For not much more cost than a motorbike and trailer, you can get a tuk-tuk that’ll go thirty kms on a day’s sunshine, 80 kms when the batteries are fully charged. They are very quiet compared to combustion engines and very simply designed. The only complexity being the electronic controls.

The new Coca-Cola plant in Phnom Penh gets 1/3 of its energy from the sun.

The future is in renewables.


Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, renewable energy

Blazing Hot



Kampot’s feeling the heat. It’s been relentless: As I write this in the second week of May it’s 32C – 90F – at 7pm, at 1pm it was 38C, 100F . We even have a bit of an advantage in Kampot. Since our temperatures are moderated by being near a large body of water we don’t get as hot as the interior. Even so the sweat drips off of you; at times I can’t even keep my glasses on, they slide down my nose. It really takes it out of you, like merely trying to breathe after you’ve been out there in the sun walking or on bicycle. It bears down, saps your energy, makes all physical activity an effort. All that said it doesn’t matter all that much to me personally, I don’t let it affect my daily life. I don’t purposely wait until the heat of the day to go riding around town, but I wouldn’t hesitate if necessary, though I must admit, I don’t feel much like hiking in the mountains when the temperature’s really hot. For really strenuous activity it makes sense to let it cool off a little first.


Anyway, we all better get used to it, because the heat is only going to keep on breaking records. Every country in SE Asia (except Thailand which came close) has experienced its all time national heat record this hot season. In Cambodia it was 42.7 C in Preah Vihear. What’s more, large swaths of the area are seeing severe drought and not surprisingly, very high temperatures are a characteristic of drought, which means plants dry out that much faster.


This has not been good for my garden. Even drought tolerant plants, those who can survive for long periods of arid, sweltering days, really don’t like it. A cactus that can manage just fine at 40°C without rain for months, would much rather it be 25 with a little rain once or twice a week. For those plants not designed to deal with that kind of weather, they get really stressed, it’s a real chore trying to keep them irrigated and happy. Moreover, the only good times to water – early morning, late afternoon – the water pressure has been so low it sometimes comes out of my hoses as a limp trickle. It’d be okay at midnight if I could see what I was watering and wasn’t stumbling around because I’d smoked and drunk to my limit by then. I have four hoses for my little space to minimize having to drag them around.


Even under the best conditions I have so many plants, mostly in pots, it takes nearly an hour to get to everybody. When the pressure is low and the temperatures are through the roof, all I can do is keep them alive in a holding pattern. And besides all that, they much prefer rainwater, not only because it contains no chlorine residues and such but also because they are more thoroughly irrigated by the drip, drip, drip than a big dose all at once.


The only respite we had recently was 12mm of rain we received on two days in early May. Before that the last rain was end of February and minus a few scattered sprinkles, you have to go back to early December for any substantial precipitation. Now, in the middle of May clouds are building up and looking like they want to rain, and some places nearby actually have seen some precipitation, but not Kampot. The government has been bringing tanker trucks to supply water to some areas around town that’ve gone dead, dusty, dry.


Finally, starting on May 15 we’re beginning to get some ‘real’ rain – 25mm – with predictions of rain every day for a while. Phew! What a relief. And on the 16th a deluge; 80mm – more than 3 inches – in less than an hour. The government now says the drought is over and normal rains have begun. As deadline approaches a big storm predicted to dump 250mm in six days is headed our way.


In drought, one of the most likely and difficult outcomes of global warming, Cambodia (like my home state of Oregon in the US) has the ability to get through it easier than many places in the world. One great advantage is a relatively small population which puts less pressure on limited resources. Secondly we have a relatively wet environment to begin with – when it does rain, it really comes down. Both the above factors have limited the overuse of groundwater. Densely populated places and especially the arid ones will be in for rough times when the heavens stop dropping their loads. In many parts of India, for instance, groundwater is being mined so extensively that water tables in many places are receding by a meter or more a year, requiring ever deeper wells. In other words a lot more is being taken out than is being naturally replenished even in the best of times.


I’m also reminded of a picture I once saw taken in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It included a gauge which showed that the land had subsided by five or six meters. Essentially, with the groundwater removed the land had sunk and consequently it can no longer hold as much water as in the past. It was permanently damaged. At any rate, no matter the severity of drought here in Cambo, there should always be water down there; it should never go completely dry as will happen in many places. It may not be enough to flood rice paddies, but at least there’ll be something.


Meanwhile, world heat records are being broken with regularity and by jaw-dropping amounts. Each of the last twelve months has been the hottest ever recorded for its month and March was the hottest on record for any month based on divergence from the norm. Not just that, but the temperature was nearly .2°C above the next hottest. Those kinds of records are usually broken by .01°. In the recent Paris climate meeting it was decided that the previous goal of keeping warming to 2°C was too much, the world couldn’t handle it, that 1.5° was a safer, more urgent goal. Well, March did it. It was supposed to a goal for a decade or two in the future, but it’s already here.


One factor in the warming is called positive feedback loops. For instance, snow and ice are white and reflect most of the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere. When it melts and either dark water or rock is exposed, most is absorbed and thus further pushes the warming process. And since the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, the loss of ice is accelerating the changes. Last February the Iditarod sled dog race which starts in Anchorage Alaska, which is at 62°N, was unable to start without bringing in many truckloads of snow… first time ever.


As for making the changes in time to make a difference, the Paris conference had no binding commitments, only loose goals that the countries could follow if they wanted. So even while industrial powerhouse Germany on May 12 this year received 90% of its power from renewables – sun, wind, hydro and biomass – and Portugal recently went 4 1/2 days solely on renewable energy, many nations, including Cambodia, are pushing ahead with coal power. Sounds like a planetary death wish.


Trump, who might well be the next US president, has called climate change a hoax, and Clinton, the likely alternative (I’m still praying for Bernie) is a strong promoter of fracking. The fracking industry pushes the idea that natural gas, because it releases a lot less greenhouse gases than coal, is a good transition from the present to a fossil free future. Unfortunately, studies have shown that lots of methane is accidentally released in the fracking process. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but on a 20 year basis it’s 87 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, and even on a 100 year basis is still 30 times more potent.


If the TPP – Trans Pacific Partnership, covering 12 countries on the Pacific rim –  and TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and EU – were enacted, countries could no longer control the process. Industry would be given free reign to pollute and despoil to their heart’s content – all thanks to Obama and his corporate backers. And if a country refused to allow fracking it could be sued for lost potential profits by the industry.


Mr. O, who I like as a person, has reneged on almost every campaign promise he made that had to do with protecting the environment and the proletariat. In his first campaign he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, the trade pact between US, Canada and Mexico. He made no attempt to make good on that promise and instead has promoted the above trade pacts which NGOs refer to as NAFTA on steroids.


If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d think he was the Manchurian Candidate. Remember, the movie was about a perfect candidate groomed by a foreign power to win an American election so they could use him to subvert the government to their own ends. For a long time I thought, if Obama’s the Man, who would be his controller? The CIA and Goldman Sachs would be a good starting point.


At any rate back here in Kampot we’re in the throes of low season and most places on most nights are pretty quiet. A few have shut down for a month or two. A long time owner of a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay that caters almost exclusively to tourists has said that in ten years of operation June was always his slowest month and we’re not even there yet. There’s a bit of an uptick in July and August, a mini-high season caused by people in the north who have their vacations in their summertime, but then we’re back in the depths in the rainy season in September and October.


It isn’t just the travelers who’ve disappeared. When you think about it and look around you also realize that lots of expats have also left for extended periods. It’s a time for many to go back to their home countries and take care of business when the weather is warm. For others, the rain or snow birds, they divide their time between Cambo and the West. Last time I was back in the states, I was there for 5 weeks and thought it was way too long. It was good to say hello to everybody, but my life and home is in Cambo.


An $80 million passenger boat terminal is being built with loans from the Asian Development Bank on the east side of Kampot river (actually it’s called a bay) about 6 kilometers south of town. In the process they’ve uglified the area by widening the shoreline road and clearing mangroves over a long stretch of it.


A year or two ago they built what myself and many others thought was going to be a passenger port for direct access to Phu Quoc across the river from town between the two bridges. It’s about right for boats with capacities of around 20 or so passengers. I do see boats there on occasion but it definitely hasn’t got an immigration post. The island is closer to Kampot than Ha Tien, the nearest Viet town, so it would certainly make sense to have direct boats going there. I’m guessing that port was built for about 100,000 to 200,000 dollars.


Now step back for a second and think about what kind of boats would need an 80 million dollar terminal. Ocean liners? The Queen Elizabeth? For little old Kampot? Ships carrying thousands of upper crust passengers docking in Kampot? All those pretentious people descending on our grungy, plebian little burg at one time? Maybe I’m missing something, but it sure looks like a gargantuan boondoggle to me.


On a very positive note, one of the businesspeople in town recently announced he was going to sell biodegradable take home packaging. Within a couple days and in spite of higher costs than petrochemical based plastics, more than 30 expat business owners signed on to the concept. I’ve also heard a similar movement is afoot in Phnom Penh. Most people don’t realize it but corn and other crops can be used to produce single-use cups and containers that are indistinguishable from the plastics we are now using, except, when tossed on the ground, they’ll literally melt into the environment in a few months instead of hanging around being a toxic hazard for thousands of years.


For sure a few dozen expat owned businesses using biodegradable packing isn’t going to make much of a dent in the mountains of non-bio plastics now being used and discarded here, but you have to start somewhere and who knows, maybe the idea will catch on and the government will step in to ban the evil stuff.


I’ve thought about what it would take to do my shopping in the local market without accepting plastic, but what would you do with meats? I doubt if waxed butcher paper would ever be economically feasible here. Banana leaves? Also seems like a hassle compared to plastic. I have a cloth bag to put the whole purchase in, but some type of container is going to be necessary for each separate item.


The current practice of many locals and some expats is to burn them along with yard waste. Bad idea. The noxious smell that burning plastic gives off is a clear indicator that it’s toxic to breathe in. Landfilling isn’t great either but far superior to burning. The burning of organic material isn’t that bad environmentally, though breathing lots of smoke of any kind is not benign. Most importantly, all burning exacerbates global warming. At any rate it’s much better to compost organics, especially here in the tropics where heavy rains leach most nutrients out of the soil.


Farmers burn crop waste because they think it improves the soil. The ash that’s leftover from burning does give a quick boost of potassium and phosphorus to the soil, but all the nitrogen and organic matter that could improve the soil’s tilth goes up in smoke. Burning is quick and easy and people like to watch a good fire, but it’s not the best way to go.

Cambodia Politics and Development, renewable energy

The Sun – Cambodia


It baffles me why nobody has picked up on the idea of manufacturing solar cookers and ovens here in Cambo. It’s a very simple concept: as easy as a kid frying bugs with a magnifying glass. If the sun can fry bugs, why not eggs? All you need for a cooker is a parabolic dish coated in a reflective surface, a stand to put it on which allows it to pivot with the sun’s direction, and a place to hang a pot or pan at the focus of the sun’s rays. I would guess they could be manufactured and sold here for about $30 each. Solar ovens are equally simple to construct: basically a box painted black on the outside with a glass top and reflective material that concentrates the sun on the box. There are actually a multitude of designs for both; some high tech and expensive, some that kids can do very cheaply as school projects.

They obviously have a major disadvantage in working only on sunny days and are best between 10am and 3pm. They can be used earlier and later, but aren’t as efficient during those times. Still, a lot of cooking can be done in midday and think of the many, probably millions, of trees that wouldn’t need to be cut down for charcoal and the cooking gas that wouldn’t have to be burned, both exacerbating global warming. Not to mention that it costs nothing to cook during those times.

A friend recently bought one of those solar tuk-tuks manufactured by Star8, an Aussie company that has a plant in Phnom Penh where they’re also producing solar buses for Siem Reap and other solar vehicles and applications.

The 3-wheeler can go 80kms on a full 220 volt charge. The solar cells on the roof act as a trickle charger and provide about 30% of a full charge. If the vehicle is used intermittently, as my friend uses his, it never needs to be plugged in. He bought it as an auto substitute and costs about $2000. The four 12 volt deep-cycle batteries last 4 to 6 years depending on use and today cost about $500 to replace. But as my friend remarked, by the time his need to be replaced, battery technology should be advanced enough to make them cheaper and longer lasting.

Another friend commented that the tuk-tuk was poorly designed, though when questioned further, it was style he was referring to. True, it’s blocky and nothing special to look at, as opposed to rakish and fancy, but it’s sturdy and strong, which I prefer to style for its own sake.

It’s also exceedingly simple compared to the combustion alternative: You’ve got the batteries, the electronic controls and a small motor attached to the differential on the rear axle. There’s hardly anything that can go wrong, though if something did, it wouldn’t be like a popular motorbike where you can find someone to fix it no matter where you go.

Electricity for transportation is fundamentally more efficient than combustion. Electric motors are 95% efficient in converting energy to work compared to only 50% efficiency in combustion engines since the other half of the energy used in them results in waste heat. Electric vehicles also create no air pollution and even when plug-in juice is used, that electricity comes from central sources that are easier to control and limit than from lots of individual vehicles. Hopefully the plug in electricity will also before too long come from renewables. They also have the great advantage of using no energy while not moving as a combustion vehicle does while idling in traffic.

Electric vehicles are not a new concept; the first ones were manufactured in the late 1890s. In the twenties they were common as urban delivery trucks. Hybrid vehicles which combine electricity and combustion are also not a new concept. Diesel train locomotives are actually diesel-electrics and they’ve been around since the 1930s.

Speaking of transportation, the PM has stated unequivocally that there’ll be trains running from the Thai border to Phnom Penh before the end of this year. Imagine BKK to PP on trains all the way. Compared to the flim-flam, scam artists running buses between the two, a heavenly experience. The following happened about ten years ago but I’m certain, from many reports and anecdotes, it hasn’t hardly changed. I went through Poipet and arrived across the border in Aranyaprathet just a few minutes too late to take the 1pm afternoon train to Bangkok. The train arrives in BKK in about 5 hours, getting you there about 6pm. One alternative was to take the local bus from the border to town and catch the Thai public buses which take about 3.5 hours and let you off at the northern bus terminal. Taking the local bus from there is about an hour to my destination on Samsen Road near Khao San Road. Taking that route I would’ve gotten to there at about the same time as the train.

But there was a mini-bus at the border market that advertised Khao San Road. It was a bit more expensive, but I figured it’d be easier so I went for it. It was the ride from hell. First we sat at the border for more than an hour waiting for the bus to fill. Once we finally got started we went about 5 kilometers and stopped at rest stop at which time the minibus took off. We were told a big bus was coming to take us to BKK. It took about 2 hours before the big bus came and by then I was feeling majorly peeved. Had I opted for the Thai overland bus, I would’ve almost been to BKK by then. Finally the bus comes and we’re on our way. After about an hour the bus pulls up to a rest stop. WTF? We had just spent two hours at one. One more hour and he stops again. By this time I’m in a severe stage of lividness, ready to explode… it took a mighty effort to hold it in.

At the third rest stop in a 4 hour trip I ceased to be civil and forbearing and gave the bus driver a strong raised-voice piece of my mind. The other people on the bus were all trying to be good travelers, staying calm, adjusting to foreign customs. Besides, they had no idea how badly they were being screwed over, whereas I’d spent a lot of time in Thailand and knew exactly what was happening. Finally, at about 11pm, 10 hours after I’d bought my ticket we come to our destination… but it’s not Khao San Road!!! I was fit to be tied, ready to tear limb from limb the guy who greeted us as we got off. YOU said Khao San Road! We’re not allowed to take our big buses down there. WELL then you should provide tuk-tuks to get us there. I was loud and nasty, not at all the way you’re supposed to behave in Thailand. I’d riled him up so much he was preparing to fight. So you want to fight an old man, huh? It’s my fall back position, we geezers can say almost anything before we get taken down.

The whole point is to stretch out the trip so by the time you arrive late at night at their bus depot/guest house you’re too frazzled to complain or head down to KS where there’s a choice of accommodations. There were no other guest houses near there. I walked the 2 kilometers to KS in a rage.

Until the train’s running, I highly recommend doing the journey on your own and taking non-tourist transportation, it’s cheaper and faster than the through bus. Or better yet make it a leisurely 2 day trip and stop at Battambang or raunchy Poipet or across the border in Thailand. Much easier.

Back to trains, there’s nothing more comfortable or energy efficient in public transportation so here’s hoping the PMs vow for through trains from PP to BKK actually happens. Unfortunately the private company running the trains says it has no immediate plans to begin passenger trains on the southern line to Kampot and Sihanoukville. They have run freight trains on the line for more than a year and have a passenger train available for charter so it should be no big deal. There should also be a push to electrify the tracks, which is even far more efficient than the diesel alternative.

Meanwhile we’ve been burning up fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow and there won’t be one if don’t change our careless, clueless ways before too long. With the example of Star8’s solar building in Phnom Penh and a recent announcement that an important special economic zone is going to start placing solar on its factory buildings, not to mention the whole world talking about climate change and renewable energy, you’d think the Cambodian government would be keen to get on the bandwagon, but no, when the minister for energy was asked recently about renewables for Cambodia he was dismissive, thought it was kind of a joke, said Cambo was only interested in hydro and coal.

Hydro is certainly renewable, but also most often comes with serious environmental and social costs. It also has the singular disadvantage of producing the least power in hot season when it’s needed the most. Coal power is cheap and easy to produce but is environmentally disastrous in every stage of production and use, on every level from the micro to the macro. Furthermore, one reason why it’s so cheap is that most costs associated with its use are externalized. For instance, the preferred coal mining method in America’s Appalachian mountains is called mountaintop removal. First they clear cut the trees off the mountain and then blast the top off with explosives, then they push the debris, tainted with heavy metals, into the streambeds, poisoning them for a very long time. After burning you still have to deal with toxic coal ash. The priceless value of forests, mountains and clean streams lost forever, at least for many generations, in exchange for cheap coal now.

In both cases, hydro and coal, Cambodia is totally dependent on for-profit Chinese companies for financing. For hydro, that means serious floods like the Kampot one last September in which water was held back in the reservoir for the sake of profit as opposed to releasing it in a timely manner to prevent flooding. In the case of coal power, how likely is it that the Chinese builders have used the latest anti-pollution technology? When the builders hold all the bargaining chips it’s hard to imagine Cambodia pressing for stringent pollution controls. In both cases, guaranteed profits are locked into the contracts, which is understood. Nobody’s going to spend millions on a coal plant without a guarantee they’ll get their money back.

The problem there, especially in the case of coal, is that the world has a limited carbon budget. In order for the planet to stay within a maximum rise of 2° Celsius we cannot burn more than 25% of the fossil fuels left in the ground. While coal use is declining very quickly in America and Europe, it’s expanding rapidly in this part of the world. India, China and several other countries are ramping up massive coal power projects. Sounds strange when you consider those two giant countries already have most of the most polluted cities in the world and lots of coal burning can only make it worse.

Developing countries ask, and rightfully so, why they should shun coal power when the US still burns massive amounts of it and arguably got rich using it to produce cheap energy. Today greenhouse gas emissions in the US is far greater per capita than a country like China.

Well, we’re all going to sink or swim together and it looks like the former is the most likely outcome. At the climate talks in Paris last December, it was recognized that even a 2° rise is too much. Every one of the last 360 months – that’s 30 years – has been hotter than the 20th century average. Through all that time until 2015 the total rise in temperature was about 0.85° C. All by itself 2015 added an amazing 0.15° and 2016 is expected to break that record, though the actual rise remains to be seen. 2015 and 2016 are super el nino years so the extreme temps may back off a little for a few years, but the greenhouse gases keep accumulating so the next record(s) may be catastrophic.

Meanwhile there’s a surprising worldwide glut of fossil fuels that’s caused their prices to crash. This is the result of a combination of, 1: a slowing world economy, 2: ramped up production in the US, 3: the explosive growth in solar and wind and 4: the vagaries of supply and demand dynamics. Starting with the last: small differences between supply and demand cause large movements in the markets. For instance, if the supply is just a few percentage points over demand, prices will crash and be 1/2 to 1/3 of the price when supply and demand are balanced. A few points under and prices will surge.

More than sixty percent of all new power installations in the US are in solar and wind. Germany, Denmark and Spain and the US states of California, Iowa and Hawaii are all getting between 25 and 43% of their power from non-hydro renewables, thus kicking the legs out of the fossil fuel market. The question is whether the transition will come fast enough. The answer is no, it won’t. Most of the voluntary pledges made at the Paris climate talks are in the range of 15 or 20% reductions over the next couple of decades. That insures, with the world increase in population combined with increases in the middle classes that can afford cars and such, that we’ll easily go over the top. And with the price reduction in fuel, Americans are turning back to big vehicles.

Cambodia has a piddling role in forcing climate change. Nothing we do here is going to alter the dynamic, though every little bit helps. But why lock yourself into long term contracts for coal power when it might be impossible to burn it in a few years? Coal companies in the US are going bankrupt or seeing their stock values plummet to tiny fractions of before. There’s no future in it. There’s no private financing for coal power anywhere, except with government guarantees such as Cambodia’s. Why get stuck in the past?… we should be moving forward.

Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Kampot Update


Guy comes to town, likes it, wants to open a bar (don’t half the expats who come to Kampot want to own a bar?) but doesn’t know anybody, and doesn’t take the time make friends. He pays $1000 month for an average, smallish place on the river – because he doesn’t know the scene – and waits for customers to come. It’s high season (though some nights it’s been pretty slow) so a few travelers will wander in, but expats, the mainstay of most establishments, will be scarce since we regular punters already have lots of friends with bars. If he’d taken the time to know Kampot he’d’ve realized that there are only a handful of the dozens of bar-restaurants in town that could afford that rent and still make a profit. Oh well, it’s only money… and hopefully a learning experience.

Meanwhile, lots of new bars are opening, but discouragingly, in most new ones the actual bar is very poorly designed. Since I’ve been through this before I’ll be very, very brief: A bar top is not a counter top, there needs to be an overhang, a place to hang your elbows, for it to be comfortable. Otherwise, you’ve either got your knees hard up against the wall of the bar – trying to get close to it – or you’re sitting so far from it, it’s a reach to reach your drink. Either way, no way is it okay to design a bar that’s uncomfortable to sit at. Why torture your customers? Okay, I’ll admit it, I do patronize places with lousily designed bars at times, but I tend not to stay long since we fogeys need our comfort. Besides, being the ergonomics man I’m too aware of bar foibles to just pass it off. On the other hand, Cambodia is a place where rank amateurs can have a business, which is good, so I guess one has to accept amateurish bar design. It’s also really nice to have a foot rail and stools that are comfortable to sit on, but the overhang is number one.

One topic of bar/restaurant design I haven’t yet covered is lighting. Some people – fortunately not too many – put a lot of time and effort into creating a nice space and then light it with bare, overly bright, blaring and intense fluorescent bulbs. Firstly, a lot of people don’t know there’re two different types of basic bulbs: daylight and warm white. Daylight bulbs are harsh and unfriendly; warm whites are like incandescent bulbs, a soft orange-yellow color. They not only provide a more relaxed atmosphere, but people look better in soft warm light. They cost the same, everyplace that sells one also sells the other and they provide equal light intensity, so there’s never a reason to use daylight bulbs.

Another factor in lighting is placement. In a bar the only places that need good light are the bar itself, the separate tables and the drinks on display, everything else should be dim. Once again, people look better in low light, it hides their imperfections.

I often come across signs and menus that are counterproductive. You’ll see a big outdoor sign, not a beer sign but an original, but the actual name of the place is relatively small and designed with an exotic hard-to-read font. Artistry is fine, I can really appreciate the talent that goes in, but impact and legibility come first. Riding along at a moderate pace you should be able to see at a glance the name of the place, it should really stand out. You shouldn’t have to come nearly to a stop to try to read some silly font in very thin lettering. After you make it easy to see, knock yourself out, let your artistic side soar.

Same goes for menus: use as large a font as possible with sharp contrast to the background. Make it readable for people who don’t have perfect vision, especially if it’s for a dimly lit bar. I can read a newspaper in good light without my reading glasses though my eyes are old and tired, but I often come across menus that’re near impossible to read. Design your menu for everybody, not just young people with perfect vision.

Then there’s music and acoustics. Now, we all sort ourselves out by the music we prefer. I usually wind up in bars that play old timer’s tunes – 60s to 80s – but my tastes are quite eclectic: I also like a lot of the new stuff. Some genres however are just hard to take. If I go into a bar owned by a European, I’ll probably encounter techno and unless there’s another important reason for me to stay I won’t last long. To me techno’s an empty shell, without heart, feeling or expression, let alone melody, and I’m bored silly in no time.

Then there’s motherfucker music. Gratuitously disgusting shit. Nobody in Kampot (that I know of) plays that drivel continuously, so I can usually tough out a few minutes before I get antsy.

This next bit is going to be hard because some of my best friends are DJs. You all need to get off the esoteric, artistic, intellectual music kick, that which is oriented towards listening, and concentrate on tunes that people can dance to. Maybe it’s good for dancing after you’ve popped a few pills, but it’s haltering and faltering and abruptly changes modes so often that when you actually start grooving, it’s moved on and the feeling has dribbled away.

For instance, the archtypical DJ song starts out with an undanceable intro, you know, flashy whirly mind sounds, and then goes into a long period of a very boring rhythm which slowly gains intensity. During that time there are a few people on the dance floor trying to figure out how to get into it. Then a musical interlude comes on, many times it’s a familiar song, and gets lots of people dancing, but after a minute or two and everybody is shaking their bums: What the Hell!?, the old boring rhythm returns and within a short time, most dancers have lost interest and are standing around waiting for the ‘real’ music to come back. This happens 3 or 4 times in an 8 or 9 minute song. It goes on and off and you can never really let loose and work up a sweat before it sets you adrift again. Arhymic whoo whoos coming from jerking around the virtual turntable also don’t help. If you all just played the original 3 or 4 minute song all would be fine, the dance floor would be full and stay full.

Acoustics also play an important part. For a room to sound good it needs to include soft materials. An all concrete room, or one with lots of pictures framed in glass, with no rugs, fabrics, wood or straw on the walls and/or ceiling to absorb the sound makes it all come off tinny and hard to listen to.

On another topic: The town is changing and growing very fast, and so far, so good. There are some who lament the changes, who look back fondly to a time when there were 4 western establishments all together – the case eight years ago when I first got here. Well, there’s always Banlung or Pailin or Koh Kong for the barely social types, but most of us here really appreciate the variety of entertainment and activities available.

They finally took down the flashing lights that covered all the bridges and surrounded all the big trees on the river around the 10th of January, what a relief, but they still haven’t opened the old bridge. It’d be a small matter to repair it, only needing to cover 8 or 10 short strips of rusted metal, so it’s hard to understand why they haven’t gotten it together. The closure of the bridge has added a lot of traffic to the new bridge and river road and caused a lot of inconvenience to everyone who could use it. It’s especially made the intersection of new bridge with river road a congested fiasco. What are they waiting for?

One of the other bafflements we expats encounter is the insistence by the police that motorbikes and bicycles be placed on the sidewalk in front of the establishments on the river instead of on the road at the curb. Why do they want everybody to walk on the street when there’s usable sidewalks in many places?

The new traffic law has kicked in, but you’d hardly know it here, except for a marginal increase in helmet use: 70% are still not wearing them. There are more checkpoints on the highways leading out of town, but no enforcement inside. I’ve got to renew my Cambodia driver’s license – now 5 years out of date – before I’ll feel comfortable tootling around outside the city.

There used to be two speed bumps on river road at the southern end of town in front of the government buildings. They were eliminated the last time it was paved but the road really needs the bumps, which are referred to as traffic calming devices in planning parlance. Most of the early evening traffic on the river – probably 75% – is youth cruising back and forth, back and forth, with many – the young boys especially – showing off by going as fast as they can. (The situation has been made a lot worse by the added traffic from the closure of the old bridge.) It’s dangerous and totally unnecessary: a few speed bumps would totally change the dynamic. It’s become a major road with expansions and improvements both north and south of the commercial strip; still, to keep the tourist/entertainment area healthy that one short stretch needs to be slowed down. At one point, the police were preventing people from going through directly and forcing drivers to go around, but that was difficult to enforce, didn’t last long and wasn’t a good solution to begin with.

Now that the PM has a facebook page (he actually had one for over a year but inexplicably denied it) he gets instant feedback on his policies. Thus his abrupt change in the new traffic law by exempting drivers of motorbikes less than 125cc from driver’s licenses. It’s easy to drive a small bike he says, and the fees charged were a bit of a burden to many. The number of children 10 or under driving motos around Kampot attest to how easy it is to drive them, but that doesn’t have much to do with knowing the rules of the road: the knowledge part of any driving test.

How about slowing down when entering an intersection or making a turn? (Actually stopping for a Stop sign? Unthinkable.) Or not cutting in front of a car or truck, forcing them to hit their brakes. You never know if they’re just a bit distracted, maybe talking on their phones, and… Kablooey! Down for the count. And not cutting corners; staying on your side of the road up to the intersection and then making a 90 degree turn when the traffic clears? Or not driving the wrong direction when you can’t make a left because of the traffic? You’re supposed to wait till it’s clear to go directly to the other side. (Full disclosure: I admit to sometimes cutting corners and driving the wrong side of the road on my bicycle… in some circumstances it’s wildly inconvenient to do it the right way. I never flout the rules in the car though.) How about wearing white at night and not driving without lights and pulling as far off the road as possible when you need to stop? All really simple and in some ways life saving rules.

Anybody who drives should know the basic rules of right-of-way. People going straight have priority over turners, though here in Cambodia, the rules are different than in the developed world since cars have priority over motos. As long as the motorbike has time to stop, a car can cut right in front.

If the fees are too costly, they can always be lowered. They’d also need to make up a test for illiterates, since many Cambodians can’t read. There’s no substitute for knowing the rules of the road.

The PM saw how Sam Rainsey’s FB presence made a big difference to the opposition’s campaign, especially true since all the country’s newspapers and TV and most radio is controlled by the CPP or its backers. We foreigners see the Daily or Post and think the press is free, but only for us. The government has tried to censor the internet at times, but hasn’t been very successful.

The CPP really needs the outreach, since they have a propensity to alienate large sectors of the population. The latest example is the painting over of a large wonderful mural of a seamstress… ostensibly because the artist didn’t get a permit, but a government spokesperson also made it clear they thought that the subject wasn’t worthy. One unspoken reason was that the woman depicted is an activist who’s consistently been a thorn in the CPPs side. Still, by saying she wasn’t a worthy subject they managed to insult 700,000 garment workers and people seeking redress in land grabs, etc. Now with used smart phones going for as little as $20, you can be sure that the vast majority of those 700,000 saw the picture of the mural and I expect were put off by its removal.

One last little tidbit. The owner of a small bar was busted with half a kilo of weed. It was a very big operation with platoons of cops involved; some were heavily armed, some were from the national level. The newspapers said he was outed by a local, but a friend said it was an expat. He tends to be caustic at times and is hard for some people to deal with. In the magic of Cambodian justice, a lightning prosecution, trial and conviction – all happening in about a day – had him off with a suspended fine and suspended 6 month sentence. He claims it cost no money. You can’t fault corruption sometimes for simplifying life. It’s possible the cops were expecting a lot more than half a kilo or that maybe he was holding harder drugs and thought it wasn’t worth a big to-do for such a piddling amount. In this case speedy justice was preferred.



Awash in Black Gold

The world is seemingly awash in black gold, the elixir of the industrial economy. While low prices are a benefit to Cambodia’s economy, they also scupper, at least for the time being, the country’s ability to enjoy a windfall from offshore oil in the Gulf of Thailand. Even before the crash in oil prices when the crude stuff was still riding high, Chevron had sold off its claims there.
The ten years or so that Chevron spend drilling and studying the field’s potential led it to give up the project and sell it off. The industry originally had the reservoir pegged at 500 million barrels. However, when they dug deeper they discovered it was almost all in small pockets and only 10% to 15% was economic to exploit.
Even at that, for Chevron, it was not worth the trouble; too small and too much work to get the oil out. But not as much of a problem to a small operator, so it was bought by smallish Singapore company. Now that the price has crashed, all investment is on hold. The economics of drilling lots of little offshore wells for a piddling amount of crude only makes it worthwhile at a high price. Even at a high price it wasn’t good enough for Big Oil.
Since nearly all of Cambodia’s transportation is based on fossil fuels, it’s a reprieve from high prices. There are no fuel subsidies here except for higher end people in the public sector, who receive either 20 liters or 50 liters of free fuel per month depending on rank. Artificially keeping fuel prices low is a very poor way to provide help to the common people. It is also counterproductive to the need to reduce consumption to slow down the destruction of the planet. As it happens, a large proportion of fuel subsidies go to the upper classes who guzzle it up in their tank-sized SUVs. And it sometimes gets so out of hand that, for instance, Indonesia has lately been spending 20% of its national budget on fuel subsidies when that huge sum should be going to desperately needed infrastructure and social improvement. Not that I don’t sympathize with the plight of very poor people in times of high prices, but if money is spent on benefits it should go only where it’s actually needed.
Looking at it from the opposite angle, it does help an economy since industrial products are cheaper to produce when energy prices are low, which is one of the reasons why Thailand and Vietnam both have an advantage in cost of doing business over Cambodia: they both provide heavy subsidies.
The Cambodian industrial development model, which is similar to neighboring countries, is sensitive economically to fuel prices since its favored design is to go far out into the boonies, buy up a big tract of rice paddy at a low price and build a factory there employing hundreds or thousands. However, when you look around, you can barely see any houses. There’s nobody living in the immediate vicinity, so 99% of workers are dependent on fossil fuel power to get to work, only maybe a few can get there on a bicycle. For the workers that often means spending up to 2 hours standing up in the back of a packed stake bed truck to go each way to work. One of the workers’ demands is transportation allowances to compensate for the cost of that travel. The only way to do land use properly is to have all factories located close to or within population centers so that at least a good percentage of workers can live nearby.
Once again I need to refer back to Oregon. In 1973 that state passed a comprehensive land use planning law. The law mandates a very strict separation between urban and rural. A line, called the urban growth boundary, was drawn around every city. The area within consisted of those places that were already urbanized; that is, already developed to some extent. In the typical American city that consists of a large area of very sparse development on the periphery. In Oregon the only uses allowed outside the boundary are farm and forest, and there’s a strict limit on the number of houses that can be built on farmland.
It took thirty years before the area had begun to fill up and require an expansion of the line. Today Portland uses half as much land as the typical American city of the same size, which means thousands of square kilometers of valuable farmland has been saved. After 3 decades of infill inside the boundary, the demarcation between urban and rural is strikingly clear even though it’s unmarked: you can tell you’ve hit the boundary because there are no businesses there outside the line except a very few who were grandfathered in when the law was passed. It’s pure countryside containing no suburban or roadside trash development.
To this date, other states have taken on parts of the concept, but none have embraced the idea as a whole, so clearly the possibility of doing something like that in Cambodia is astronomically slim. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be impossible to imagine the government taking steps to encourage developments near towns. It won’t of course since it’s locked into a fossil fuel based mindset that’s prevalent all around the region, and most of the world I imagine too. It’s only Europe and parts of America where designing for efficiency and social good trumps property rights. Urban planning is at an early stage in Cambodia so we see little towns like Kep with new 6-lane roads that’re so overbuilt they won’t be needed to accommodate traffic even after decades of growth.
So low fuel prices offer an economic boost, but rest assured it’ll be brief. I realize that I and other likeminded people, based on the principle of peak oil, have been predicting sky-high prices and shortages for years, so readers have a right to be skeptical. In addition many analysts are predicting low oil prices for years to come. Nevertheless, the concept of peak oil is no less valid. No matter how easy or difficult it is to get it out of the ground, or how many new resources are found, the supply is limited, there’ll never be more, so the supply crunch and sky-high prices seem inevitable. It’s also pretty well recognized in scientific and environmental communities that 80% of known reserves must stay in the ground if the world isn’t to heat up past the point where humans can survive. That restriction in supply may also put upward pressure on prices in the not-so-distant future.
One reason given for the plunge in oil prices is the slowdown in the Chinese economy, but that country, India and others, even Cambodia, are growing at high levels, so demand will inexorably rise without a worldwide agreement to limit burning, which is extremely unlikely. To the point, twenty-four million cars were sold in China last year. Current greenhouse gas emission reduction proposals, which to begin with are totally voluntary, are nowhere near enough to keep the planet below 2º C of warming, which in itself is woefully insufficient to keep from catastrophic climate change. So far the massive climate changes we’ve already seen have come from less than 1º of warming. In fact the sharp increase in the production of renewables in parts of the world is also contributing to the surplus. Denmark and Germany and the US states of Iowa and Texas now produce nearly 30% of their electricity from wind and solar.
The oil spigot, now overflowing, has been kept gushing by tapping ever costlier resources. The Saudis, who have been instrumental in keeping the price low by maintaining production even in the face of falling demand, largely because they want to bankrupt the fracking industry, can pump oil at a cost of $2 per barrel so they’ll be making money no matter what the price is, whereas crude produced from fracking costs about $65 per barrel. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of injecting wells with water, sand and (toxic) chemicals under high pressure to break up the layers of shale and release the oil or gas. A lot of new oil has also come from Canadian tar sands, also a very expensive method of producing oil.
Now that oil has plunged below $50, all new fracking wells have been put on hold, and some companies are going bankrupt. Oil is still being pumped from existing wells to try to recoup some of the initial capital costs, but that may shut down too since most fracking operations have been financed with high interest bonds, the equivalent of sub-prime mortgages, so they have to make a good profit just to pay off their junk bonds. In fact, some pundits are predicting the fracking/tar sands bubble is about to burst and since the big banks are heavily invested in derivatives based on oil prices, and the US congress has just immunized the banks from absorbing the costs of derivative losses and instead set the scene for another massive bail out, we can confidently expect another economic crash on the horizon.
The fracking boom in the US has made the country self-sufficient and not needing large scale imports, but it’s like a heroin high. The first rush after you inject makes you feel like you are in heaven, but it wears off after a short time and necessitates doing it again. Fracking wells show high production levels the first year, but by the end of the second year, production is typically down by 60% to 90%, requiring ever more wells to maintain production. At current low prices they are not being drilled so that output will soon drop precipitously. Fracking is also getting slammed by a concerted popular movement against the practice. There a lots of environmental reasons why it’s nasty process, but the worst is its effect on aquifers. Air pollution, bad as it is, dissipates and is a relatively short term harm, but groundwater contamination can go on for millennia. Our most precious resource is being sacrificed for short term gain.
It looks like we’re headed for a perfect storm in which very low prices are followed by a tremendous spike. This is akin to a tsunami in which the tide recedes far from the shore only to come back with fierce destruction.
Regardless of the price of fossil fuels, whether high or low, the task of every government today should be to get as far off of dependence on them as possible as soon as possible. In some ways Cambodia is failing dismally in that regard. The new coal-fired power plants in Sihanoukville is the worst example: coal plant pollution in a tourist town? Cambodia welcomed those new plants because they’ve been funded exclusively by the Chinese builder in a BOT – build-operate-transfer – contract. Cambodia desperately needs additional power sources since demand is growing very fast and most of the country is still not even connected to mains power, but there’s a catch to those BOT contracts; they guarantee the builder an income even if the power is not needed and not produced. It’s therefore easy to envision a scenario in which a few years down the line the country has enough hydropower to not need that coal fired power, but still needs to pay for decades ahead. There’s also the possibility that climate change pressures will shut down the entire coal industry.
That brings up the dozen or so hydropower plants now online or in the development pipeline. They of course produce power renewably and do it at a relatively low price, but they are not without serious faults. Most dams are located such that they inundate fertile land on river plains and result in large displacement of people, but their most glaring disadvantage is the loss of fisheries. Cambodians depend on fish for 80% of their protein; it is relatively cheap to purchase and easy enough to catch for dinner in the country’s large and productive watery areas. People displaced by dams can be relocated and there’s still lots of land in a relatively small population but loss of fisheries will be for generations. When asked about that problem a government spokesperson said that access to electricity at low cost will compensate them for the loss of that food supply.
That’s exactly what the builders of the huge dams on the Columbia River said when they blocked fish passage starting in the 1930s. Before that ten to sixteen million salmon ranging up to 40 kilos each would return to the river to spawn every year. Salmon, one of the tastiest and prized fish was dirt cheap to buy and easy to catch. Today a maximum of 100,000 return and most are farmed salmon, and not cheap. Now in the Pacific Northwest older dams are being breached so the water can run free and the fish return.
As I see it, the only dam placement that doesn’t result in serious harm is represented by the Kamchey dam upriver from Kampot. It’s in the mountains where no people lived. A forest and beautiful scenery was lost but no farmland and no fisheries. In fact, the reservoir could be stocked with fish and actually increase the available resource. If dam builders were confined to those areas, they’d be sacrificing a lot of potential hydropower and so exploitation takes precedence over the environment.
There is one other sticky point with dams; they don’t make much electricity in a drought, so heavy dependence on them creates big problems when it doesn’t rain.
In a land of abundant sunshine, why are there no plans for solar power development? And I’m sure there are also ample appropriate locations for wind farms. But since the country depends entirely on funding from outside sources, if they don’t bring the money and proposals it won’t happen.
One final note: I’ll never understand why solar cooking isn’t more prevalent. It requires a very simple apparatus that, I’m convinced, could be fabricated and sold here for about $20 to $30. Sure, it only works during midday when the sun is out, but there’s no cost whatever to cooking with it and no use of either fossil fuels or charcoal, so creates no pollution. And it doesn’t take any longer than cooking with natural gas. People with very low incomes would save most of their cooking for midday, not a terrible inconvenience.
We should all be looking for ways to accomplish what we need to live the good life without using fossil fuels. They have no future, so we might as well make the change now: otherwise climate change will insure that we’ll have no future either.


Public Transportation Finally Comes to Cambodia


Phnom Penh is probably the only city of its size in the world that doesn’t have a public bus system, but finally a start has been made. The city has managed to live without a public system, but that has resulted in hardship for some and excessive traffic congestion for all.
There has been a single line operating on Monivong Blvd. since March of this year which in the beginning of September was extended to the outskirts of town in both directions. Two additional lines were inaugurated in the middle of September. One goes from the Night Market on the riverside to Takmau town about 9 km south of the city. The other goes from the Night Market to Cham Chao in the east, presumably passing right by the airport, so if you’ve got the time and you’re not too burdened with luggage you’ll be able to go airport to town for 1500 riel – 37 cents – a bargain.
There still are lots of scoffers, people who will never take one and think it’s a waste of energy. In response to a facebook post about the expansion, one fellow insisted that the current system of relying on motodops (motorbike taxis in the local lingo) and tuk-tuks, (3-wheel taxis) works just fine. They’re cheap, fast and convenient, he said, so why bother with buses. I and another fellow pointed out that they’re cheap for a ‘rich’ expat but for many locals going any distance it’s prohibitively expensive.
For instance, I knew a young Khmer college grad quite a few years ago who spent a short time working in the office of a garment factory about 5 kilometers south of the city center. With the cost of a motodop 6000 riel ($1.50) each way she was spending 60% of her income on transportation. What she had left of her salary after transportation costs was so minimal that she quit after a short time.
The high price of going anywhere outside the neighborhood does two things. It limits people’s mobility and therefore their economic opportunities; one of the great advantages of living in a city. It also encourages those of slightly higher means to get their own transportation since the out-of-pocket cost of fuel is minimal. Many times when people are displaced by development they’re given small plots of land just outside the city, but with no jobs out there and transportation costs so high, they soon wind up back in the city center where they can earn their minimum $2 to $4 a day. So the biggest losers of the city not having public transportation are the city’s poorest.
In some ways it works the same in an American city. With the exception of the biggest cites, most people who ride the bus outside of commuter hours either don’t drive, can’t drive – think of the young, old and infirm – or can’t afford to own a car. Without public transit they’re screwed. Thus one of the two primary reasons why public transit in the US is heavily subsidized. Farebox revenue typically covers only a third of operating costs. The other factor is traffic; a full bus takes up far less street space than the equivalent number of cars needed to carry the same load, especially since most cars carry only a single person. It works the same way here in Cambodia. Even though motorbikes take up only a small fraction of the space of cars, when you add it up a full bus uses much less street space than the equivalent motorbikes to move the same number of people.
Motorbike taxis have two great advantages: time and convenience. Nothing could be quicker or easier, especially in Phnom Penh where there’s a motodop waiting on every corner and in front of every business ready to whisk you on your way. They are very maneuverable and are able to get you there as quickly as possible.
Using public transportation, on the other hand, is very time consuming. First you have to walk to the bus stop, then wait for it. Once aboard, it goes relatively slowly and has to stop often to pick up and drop off passengers and when you get off there’s still the walk to your final destination. A less than 10 minute door-to-door ride on a motorbike could easily take half an hour or longer using the bus. For that reason most Phnom Penhers would not immediately sell or park their bikes if presented with a bus alternative. Still, many in fact would save the money and use the bus. With the extra time, students for instance, could use it to study or just diddle with their smart phones. Most importantly, every person who opted for public transit would help ease traffic problems, reduce the need for parking, cut pollution and save energy.
Bus transportation would not put most motodops be out of a job, in fact, many people going long distances on the bus would hop on a motorbike taxi for the short hop to get them from the bus stop to their final destination. It’s mostly for the long haul that people would use public transportation.
On the other hand, buses have some great advantages. Probably most important is that they are 1000 times safer than riding a motorbike in Phnom Penh’s traffic. And nothing beats the comfort of proper seat in an air-con bus when Cambodia is brutally hot or in the middle of a tropical downpour. There’s also the pollution you breath in to consider when you’re on the street in an open vehicle.
The capital had a short-lived bus system back in 2001 that was financed by Japan; it even had proper bus shelters. I’ve heard conflicting reports about the experiment. One was that people weren’t riding it; the other that the city didn’t want to continue the subsidy after the six-month trial period. I believe time would’ve solved the first problem. Traffic wasn’t so bad then and people needed time to get used to the bus. The other problem is the need for public subsidies; big bus systems almost always need public money. If you try to pay for it through the farebox, it’ll cost too much and people won’t use it in sufficient numbers, which defeats the purpose of getting as many people as possible to use it for its traffic reduction aspect.
The government has been trying for years to get a private company to run the buses, hoping to relieve itself of the burden – the Cambodian government is hardly noted for its efficiency – and avoid the subsidy regime, but has not had any takers. Even the company that ran the single line since March quit after the city wouldn’t grant a tax break on its other operations. After six months of operation, the government just couldn’t close it down and has pledged to keep it going regardless of the cost.
For a system to be successful it needs to offer wide coverage: there aren’t that many people moving around the city who have a starting point and destination on the same street. The fact that the single line was showing progress bodes well for the system as a whole. For best results there also needs to be free transfers between lines since a significant percentage will need more than one line. Even after the complete system is up and running traffic will seem just as bad. The city is growing so fast the bus system will only keep congestion from getting much worse, a worthy enough goal.
Ultimately, large cities need rail transport in the form of sky trains or subways or at minimum dedicated bus lanes to get beyond street congestion. It’s only then that public transit can begin to compete timewise and provide a reasonable alternative to the comfort of a private vehicle. Either way, the cost of those systems is far beyond the government’s finances so they’ll not be happening anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Siem Reap is about to have a solar bus system, one of only 3 or 4 in the world. Star8, an Australian company, will be building and running the system. They’ll be exclusively solar-electric, no back up combustion engines needed. The buses will have solar panels on their roofs to help provide power and there’ll be solar charging stations on the routes where extra batteries will be charged. The batteries will be able to take the bus 90 kms on a charge and when they get low, they’ll be able to make a quick change en route. There are other ways to charge batteries without removing them: microwave chargers can be placed in the road so they can be juiced up at stops, but that’s probably a pretty spendy option at this point.
There are great advantages to electric transportation, in this case one of the most important will be the reduction of pollution at the temples. With more than a million tourists visiting every year, all on combustion engine vehicles, the pollution has become a threat to the temples.
Electric vehicles are far superior to combustion driven ones even if the power comes from central generating stations. Electric motors are more than 90% efficient compared to combustion engines in which half the fuel expended is lost in waste heat. They are nearly silent, which in fact has resulted in problems for blind people as they can’t hear them coming. There’s talk of adding sounds to electric vehicles to protect those people: that applies mostly to small vehicles. They’re pollution free in the cities, where it counts most. Besides, it’s easier to control and limit pollution from a single large point source than spread amongst large numbers of small engines.
They are super efficient, especially in urban use as they don’t idle; that is, they expend no energy while stopped, except for accessories. When I lived in Bangkok in 1993, traffic would come to a complete stop for an hour in many places. All those vehicles were chugging away for an hour, wasting energy and creating pollution while going nowhere.
They also have what’s called regenerative breaking. When the brakes are applied, the motor helps to slow the vehicle down: it turns into a generator. It sounds complicated but it’s really very simple. Motor and generator, when wired properly, are fundamentally the same machine. If you put electricity in one direction it does work. If you put work into the other direction it generates electricity. In this case the work is helping to stop the vehicle. In the case of a bus that makes many stops, regenerative breaking reduces energy use by about 30%. Electric vehicles actually get better mileage in town than on the road for that reason. Also they accelerate faster than diesel and the motors last longer and require less maintenance.
Up until now, with solar cells becoming so cheap, electric buses required overhead lines or lots of very heavy batteries. The Australian company that’s building and will be running the solar bus system currently has a solar cell factory in Phnom Penh and is now building one in Siem Reap. It’s truly gratifying to think that our lowly Cambodia will soon pioneer with one of only 3 or 4 totally solar bus systems in the world.
But it’s also depressing and dispiriting to think that conversion to solar could’ve happened long ago. Back in the 70s during the OPEC oil embargo and resultant turmoil the Pentagon did a study that showed if $5 billion were spent buying solar cells for their remote locations, the ramping up of production would’ve made the cost of solar competitive with fossil fuels, and that’s when gas was 50 cents a gallon. In response to the crisis, Jimmy Carter called the need to switch to renewables the Moral Equivalent of War. He proposed a drastic change in priorities and did his little part by putting solar hot water on the White House roof. The people didn’t want to hear about it so they elected Ronald Reagan.
When Reagan came into office in 1981 he removed the solar water apparatus from the White House, ended Carter’s solar tax credits and trashed everything environmental. He insisted there was plenty of fossil fuel and environmentalists were just a bunch of do-gooder hippies who wanted everybody to live in caves (I’m paraphrasing, of course). His first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, said the environment didn’t matter because the End Times were coming soon and the world would be destroyed anyway so why bother trying to save it.
Now we’re at the brink of irreversible change and the world continues to increase CO2 production; last year saw the largest increase ever. That’s in spite of great successes like Germany where one day last spring they got 100% of their power from renewables. There is also one district there with 100,000 people that now not only gets all of its power without burning fossil fuels but often sends another 100% back into the grid. Texas and Iowa now get 25% of their power from wind, something that could’ve happened decades ago. Yet, in the height of folly and insanity, the US government still subsidizes the oil giants, some of the richest corporations in the world, to the tune of $8 billion a year. America consistently provides more in subsidies to old technologies than renewables.
China is making great strides developing renewables, and is the world’s biggest exporter of solar panels, but still builds a new coal fired plant every week, that in spite of many of its cities having the worst air pollution in the world. How can we go forward if we’re still going backward?
Even Cambodia is joining the death march to destruction with a new coal fired power plant being built in Sihanoukville… just what a tourist town needs, air pollution.
Not a penny should be going into new fossil fuel facilities, not when we know renewables can work just fine. If we stopped right now, we might have a stab at mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, we might be able to just barely make it without totally crashing the planet. But we won’t because there’s lots of money to be made in not giving a shit. At least it’ll be an exciting ride, a race against reality, a true extravaganza of extraordinary events. Which I expect to witness in my lifetime, which at 73, isn’t all that long.
Of course, I’ve been wrong before.