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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dam plans threat to Stung Treng ecology

Dam plans threat to Stung Treng ecology

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fish.jpg

This could be the only Pase ee fish left in Stung Treng if the dam goes ahead

T

he project to build two hydro-electric power dams in Stung Treng province - the

first of series throughout the country - has locals worried that they will lose

Dtrey Pase ee , their favorite fish. But as Bou Saroeun has discovered, it

could be just one of 50 species of fish to disappear from the area and the beginning

of an ecological disaster.

THE PROSPECT of Cambodia becoming a regional power station generating and selling

electricity to neighboring countries - is at first sight attractive.

It would create employment and income for the country while providing a much needed

reliable national power grid, according to the Ministry of Industry Mines and Energy.

But environmentalists say the plan is an ecological disaster in the making and there

are indications it will not fulfill its promise of financial prosperity.

Locals in Stung Treng might have trouble visualizing the long term ecological damage

but they have latched on to the possibility of losing the Pase ee (Mekongina erythrospila),

a beautiful fresh water fish with delicious sweet meat, and the symbol of the province.

Chea Vannaren, chief of the fisheries office of Stung Treng said locals have a deep

attachment to the fish.

"Pase ee is a symbol of Stung Treng as like Angkor Wat is the symbol of Siem

Reap," he said.

It is also one of the province's several endangered fish species. It spawns in flooded

forest in the middle of the Mekong then migrates up Srey Pok and Se San rivers, the

planned sites for hydro-power dams.

According to a report by Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA),

the project plans the development of six dams in the Se Kong, Se San and Nam Teun

river basins for hydro-electric power generation.

Funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a two-phase study has now been completed.

Of the six dams proposed, two are in northern Cambodia: Se San 2 and Pre Pok 2.

Se San 2 is proposed to be a low head dam of about 15 meters. It will inundate 35,500

ha of fertile land in the valley bottom, flood ten villages and require the resettlement

of 2,170 people. Substantial forest areas crucial to the survival of the many indigenous

people living in the area would be lost.

The Sre Pok dam will flood about 120 sq km and between 800 and 1000 people will need

to be resettled if the dam is built.

According to the ADB's Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) neither dam will be

commercially viable.

The report says that environmental problems would be exacerbated by the planned Sre

Pok 2 to the extent that there would be "100% loss to the lower river for many

migrant fish species over a comparatively short space of time".

Fish is reported to provide 70% to 80% of the protein in the diet of the lowland

people living along Se San and Sre Pok, such as in Ven Sai, Ta Veng and Andong Meas

districts. Rice paddies would also be destroyed.

The increase in shallow waters caused by the reservoir would be likely to increase

the incidence of malaria and other endemic water-related diseases. Schistosomiasis

and Japanese Encephalitis would be likely to appear or increase in frequency around

the reservoir. These diseases would affect the people relocated to new villages in

the area.

According to the book Silenced Rivers - a study on the ecology and politics

of large dams - building dams can also promote the incidence of diseases such

as tuberculosis, measles, influenza, leishmaniasis, syphilis and AIDS; new strains

can be introduced by construction workers and spread to local people who may have

little immunity.

In addition to the devastating impact on fisheries the reservoir will decrease sediment

transport and cause erosion down stream.

Terra also reported that no information has been provided on the effects of the erosion

and water flow patterns on this problem.

Touch Seng Tana, an Environmental and Social policy expert, said another problem

was that Cambodia's sandstone base was easily eroded and the resulting debris would

quickly fill in the reservoir.

The greatest concern for environmentalists is the effect dams have on the flow of

rivers.

Tana said that if a hydropower plant on the Se San was built the water level of the

Mekong would drop about one meter and cause the loss of 40 to 50 percent of fish

species.

The loss of the fish would then open the way for parasites such as liver flukes and

mosquito larvae to breed unconstrained by the fish that once fed on them.

He said there would also be problems with the Cambodian minorities who live in the

watershed zone.

He said the destruction of the forest and lands will rob them of their homes, livelihood

and lifestyle.

Tang said that Cambodia should learn from neighboring countries' experiences with

dams, such as Thailand's Pak Moon dam which has destroyed a water resource, a fishery

and destabilized surrounding land, causing landslides.

The principal ecological benefit claimed for hydro-generated electricity has been

the absence of emissions that contribute to global warming.

However McCully cites studies from dams in Brazil which show that in some cases decaying

plant materials in the reservoirs generated far greater amounts of green house gasses

than coal or gas fired power stations.

He said in one of the Brazilian examples, the Balbana reservoir, it had an effect

on global warming 26 times greater than an equivalent coal-fired power station.

He said over time the gases from the decaying biomass will lessen but the overall

effect on the environment would stay the same.

Meanwhile despite the ADB's willingness to lend the money to construct the dams there

is some doubt they will proceed.

Soy Sem, Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy, said that while it was Government

policy to build dams they were still wary about the cost and anything that affected

the Mekong would affect neighboring countries so their consent would be necessary.

"If some countries objected to the building of the dams the government will

stop," he said.

Other Government officials are opposed outright to the project.

Nao Thouk, deputy director of the Fisheries Department and the National Director

of the Mekong River Committee, said that if the government asked for his opinion

he would say no.

He said that dam construction in Vietnam has already caused problems in the Se San

river with falling water levels and associated health problems.

Likewise NGO's in the area have been battling the plan.

Phong Choun, director of Community Aid Abroad (CAA) said that his NGO and other NGOs

are against the project because of the effect on fish migration and will request

the government to consider these facts.

Dave Hubber, a TERRA officer, has reiterated the problems in Thailand with similar

projects.

But the most passionate opponent appears to be Vannaren.

He is concerned not only for the loss of fish as a food source but also as a cultural

icon.

"I do not agree with building the dam there. It will destroy the prestige of

the province by cutting off our status symbol," he said.

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