Hundreds of villagers from communities along the Sesan river met in Ratanakkiri’s Veun Sai district yesterday to protest against the planned US$700 million Lower Sesan II dam, which they believe could destroy their livelihoods.
Roughly 270 villagers from Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng and Kratie provinces met at an NGO-led forum in Pong commune to voice discontent over the hydroelectric project, set be built about 40 kilometres from Stung Treng town.
Construction on the 400-megawatt dam – which is a joint venture between Cambodia’s Royal Group and EVNI Joint Stock Company of Vietnam – is due to start later this year.
Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, an event co-organiser, said yesterday that the meeting was crucial in allowing communities to express their concerns. “The river is our life because it supports the villagers’ standard of living,” he said.
If constructed, he added, the dam could affect more than 1,500 families living in the region who rely on the river for fish and growing rice, in addition to flooding more than 30,000 hectares of forest.
Meach Mean, project coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, another organiser of yesterday’s meeting, said an environmental impact assessment of the scheme had ignored a raft of considerations including indirect impacts to upstream communities, including changes in fish migration and breeding patterns.
“Based on the impact of Yali Falls dam in Vietnam, the fish stocks have [already] decreased markedly, and that will be exacerbated significantly by a second dam,” he said, adding that agricultural output in downstream communities would also be affected.
“Their farming areas will have to change and that will negatively impact their livelihoods and food security as well,” he said.
During the event, which began with ethnic Tampoun villagers performing a cultural dance as village elders drank from a ceramic jug of rice wine, community representatives gave passionate speeches about the project’s potential fallout for their communities.
Sai Bun Pom, a representative for Sesan district’s Kbal Romea commune in Stung Treng province, told The Post that he had come to the public assembly to grab the attention of government officials over the villagers’ situation.
His community has faced hardships in recent years due to similar projects, he said, pointing in particular to the 720MW Yali Falls dam, 80 kilometres upstream of the Cambodian border.
“We have been suffering every year because of the Yali Falls dam in Vietnam, which is not even in our country. What will happen to us if they construct the dam in our country? We will lose everything,” he said.
In 2000, at least five Cambodians were killed, crops destroyed and fishing boats and equipment lost after a massive release of water from the Yali Falls dam, which caused sudden surges in the volume and current downstream on the Sesan in Cambodia.
Kham Kang, a representative from Sesan district, said that the serious problems caused by the Yali Falls dam would only be exacerbated by the Lower Sesan II. She added that villagers’ livelihoods had already been affected
by the decrease in fish stocks stemming from the construction at Yali.
“We never had these kinds of issues before,” she said. “I hope that the government will solve our issues.”
The solidarity of the various communities continued after the meeting, when villagers marched down a one-kilometre dirt road in Pong commune, carrying banners and chanting slogans emphasising the importance of the river to their respective communities.
Once they reached the Sesan riverside, the group released about 15,000 fish spawn to increase future stocks. They also prayed for the future prosperity of those living along the river, while monks blessed the ceremony.
Paov Horm Phan, Ratanakkiri provincial governor, said yesterday that the Sesan dam was not a large concern for the province as it was downstream in Stung Treng. The dam would allow villagers to have an ample supply of usable water, he said.
Puth Sorithy, director of the environmental impact assessment department of the Environment Ministry, declined to comment yesterday, as did Meng Savuth, the ministry’s cabinet director.
Royal Group chairman Kith Meng declined to comment, referring questions to the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.
In a Royal Group statement last month, he said that the project would “contribute greatly to the economic development of Cambodia”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVID BOYLE