Daming the future of villages on the banks of the Sesan river
By Ratanakkiri | Cambodia, Apr 30 2010
T about six o'clock in the evening on Monday 28, September 2009, Ru Chom
watched helplessly as a wall of water surged through her riverside
village, uprooting her house and washing away livestock, trees and wild
"The money that I had earned I spent on the previous
house. I hadn't even finished it yet and now it is upside down. Now I
have nothing and no business," she said, pointing to the remnants of her
Typhoon Ketsana had struck, bringing a torrent of
water with it and while the nation's eyes were fixated on the tragic
floods in Kampong Thom province, further north in Ratanakkiri province
another catastrophe was quietly unfolding.
Two hours earlier at
the Yali Falls Dam, 900 kilometres east in neighbouring Vietnam,
desperate officials had opened the floodgates of smaller regulation
dams, fearing the dam walls would collapse under intense pressure from
The dams simply hadn't been built to withstand the
pressure of torrential downpours on the scale of Ketsana, and shortly
after the gates were opened Ratanakkiri provincial Governor Pav Hamphan
received a phone call, warning him of the impending flood.
had to open their flood gates into Cambodian land when the water became
too much; if they hadn't the dam would have collapsed," he said in a
Just 10 hours later Andoung Meas village had disappeared, submerged under a 13-metre swell of the Sesan river's water level.
representative Ting Ramon was in Banlung, the provincial capital, when
he heard the news and rushed back to his village. "When I came to the
village I just sat on the boat and measured the rising water level by
diping a long stick, and I could see the water go up very high. Compared
to the normal water level in the rainy season, it was 8 meters higher,"
he said. "There are 21 houses in my village and 13 of them floated
By morning the floods waters were surging towards the
neighbouring province of Stung Treng, the site of another proposed dam
that has ethnic minority villagers fearing that last year's flood will
become an all-too-common occurrence.
They already complain that
since the Yali Falls Dam was first sealed closed in 1996, floods have
become a routine occurrence along the Sesan river, inundating nearby
villages two to three times a year.
But the complaints of small,
isolated minority villages situated on the periphery of Cambodia's rural
outskirts barely stir a ripple downstream where the decision-making
about major infrastructure projects takes place.
project coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN), is
deeply concerned about the upstream impacts of the planned 400-megawatt
Lower Sesan 2 dam due to be completed in 2014.
The dam, which
will inundate 30,000 hectares of forest and displace an estimated 4,785
people is, is being built by Electricite du Vietnam (EVN) through the
company Power Engineering Consulting Joint-Stock Company 1 (PCC1) and is
intended to provide enough power to generate significant international
But 3SPN is worried it will do so at the expense of local
livelihoods for riverside villages on the banks of the Sesan in
Ratanakkiri who already complain that existing dams have decimated their
fish stocks and made river water undrinkable.
He wants these
concerns heard and knows that local ethnic minority villagers simply
don't have the capacity and avenues of communication to gain exposure
without outside assistance. "We help them share information because we
get the information from our communities: for example, changes in the
water level or any other changes that they have noted," he said.
soft advocacy, the support of local and international partners and
their access to local government, his organisation is trying to develop
communication networks to promote local concerns that in the past have
fallen on deaf ears.
Ting Ramon is part of that information
network and his feelings about the new dam mimic those of all the
villages that have been mobilised by the community networks 3SPN has
"Building a big dam like this always affects the
people around it. It makes life more difficult for people and [the
government] doesn't have pity for people living on the river. It seems
like they are killing us off," he said. "I feel that the government is
building this dam to develop the country, but they just make life
difficult for people along the river."
It's not just at the
local level that concerns are being raised about hydropower development
projects that are pursued with scant regard for the consequences they
Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator
for the US-based International Rivers, said the combined impact of a
plethora of dams slated for construction on the Mekong and its
tributaries such as the Sesan is incalculable and deeply concerning.
health of Mekong ecosystem is linked to the fact that it's a flood
pulse, the fact that there's a lower level in the dry season and then a
very high level in the rainy season, and it's that characteristic that
makes the river one of the most productive," he says.
most productive [river] in the world for fisheries, and it also has an
exceptional biodiversity as well, so the cumulative impacts of building
so many projects on the tributaries combined with mainstream dams could
be pretty grave."
Those cumulative impacts are not just confined
to sporadic floods, fish stock depletion and water quality degradation.
With the Mekong river basin in the midst of a severe drought that has
brought river flows to a complete halt in some areas, the impact of
upstream dams in China was a hot topic at a summit of the Mekong River
commission in April this year.
Converging in the luxury seaside
resort town of Hua Hun in Thailand, the prime ministers of Cambodia,
Thailand, Laos and Vietnam - as well as delegates from China and Myanmar
- discussed the future of the river. And though China, who has four
major dam projects on the Mekong already, agreed to share dry season
water flow data with downstream companies for the first time, it
continued to deny Chinese dams were having any impact on the river's
A map produced by the Mekong River Commission in
February 2008 showed 14 existing dams on the Mekong and its tributaries,
with another 11 under construction and a staggering 57 planned by six
countries along the river and its tributaries.
seven more in Laos and two in Cambodia, mostly using
Build-Operate-Transfer schemes in which a private company builds and
operates the dams for a set period of time, before handing them over to
the national government.
Meach Mein is convinced that such
schemes are particularly counterproductive because the host country
reaps no economic benefit until they inherit the ageing dam 30 or 40
years later. "By then the materials are already old and the dam collects
increasing amounts of sediment. It means we get a garbage dam," he
His colleague at 3SPN, advocacy adviser Paul Humphrey, said
the Cambodian government should seriously consider the efficiency of
"old, dirty" hydropower dams against alternative sources of generating
power such as micro-dams, solar and bio-gas.
electricity for local consumption by blocking off only a small section
of the river, allowing fish migration to continue while causing
comparitively small impacts to water quality and sediment accumulation.
They also avoid large transmission losses associated with transporting
power long distances to neighbouring countries for sale.
has a real opportunity that they can embrace all these new, renewable
energy sources which, given that there's more research coming out
everyday and there have been vast improvements in this technology, are
really viable alternatives," Humprey says.
If Prime Minister Hun
Sen's recent visit to the province is any indication, Cambodia will not
be investigating such alternatives.
At the opening of a new
national road in March, Hun Sen lauded the fact that because of new
hydropower dams slated for construction on the Srepok and Sesan rivers,
Vietnam would soon be buying power from Cambodia - a reversal of the
At the same time, Provincial Governor Pav
Hamphan failed to deliver a letter of protest he'd promised to deliver
to the prime minister about the dam, sighting the fact that he had
already received too many protests from different interest groups that
Perhaps one point of optimism for the communities living
along the Sesan is that, after seeing a copy of the environmental impact
assessment (EIA) for the Lower Sesan 2 project, Hun Sen deemed that
more information was required, suggesting a new EIA may be on the way.
even if a new assessment is produced, Meach Mien has little faith that
such a report will prompt any real change, believing the assessments are
conducted largely as show exercises to appease the requirements of the
He remains frustrated that the
Cambodian government continues to support major internationally financed
dam projects justified by invariably misleading, inaccurate and
impotent EIA reports.
"It seems like they conduct them just to
suit their needs. For instance, they only study around the area where
the dam sits and where the community will be directly impacted; it's not
a full EIA," he said.
Meach Mien does not understand why
indirect impacts to upstream villages - affected by changes to river
flow, destruction of fish stocks, increased susceptibility to floods and
reductions in water quality - are not incorporated into these
One of the men tasked with conducted the EIA,
completed in 2008, was Sopha Nara, an environmental engineer with Key
Consultants Cambodia, who were sub-contracted to produce the EIA by the
company building the dam.
He said that those indirectly affected
by the impacts of the dams were consulted, including villagers in
Ratanakkiri but that it simply was not practical to survey villagers a
long way from the project site.
"So far from the project site we
don't do it; we do it around 40 kilometres from the dam site but we
can't do it 100 or 200 kilometres, it is very far," he said, laughing.
joke is lost on Ting Ramon, whose village was not included in Key
Consultants' report. In fact, in the 10-page public consultation section
of the 178-page report, only one village from Ratanakkiri and five from
Stung Treng province were consulted.
Sopha Nara insists that
where it was not practical to consult villagers, accurate predications
were made in the Lower Sesan 2 Dam EIA and compensation provisions
afforded accordingly to those both directly and indirectly affected.
Tep Bunnarith, director of the Culture and Environment Preservation
Association, which advocates on behalf of affected villagers in the
proposed flood region in Stung Treng province, said not even those
directly affected have received any guarantee of compensation. "I have
not known of any plan by the authorities to compensate or resettle
villagers," he said.
For Ting Ramon and his fellow villagers,
compensation offers are neither here nor there. They want to remain on
the lands they have cultivated for generations and don't see where
authorities plan to relocate him.
"Since I was a child and I
could see the river, nothing changed. In the dry season, the water was
crystal clear like a mirror and was much fresher and we could fish.
Since the time that they built the dam, the river changed," he said.
can I move to? I don't have any other land. When we [try to] move to
the place that has no water, no floods, it [all already] belongs to
private companies, so I stay here. I'll stay here forever. When I die,
I'll die here."