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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - People of the river: Sambor and beyond

People of the river: Sambor and beyond

K RATIE - The old man knew pretty much all that was going on in Kratie. He told us

about logs being floated underneath boats from here to Phnom Penh, and about corruption

and security problems.

The town has grown since the elections. There are 41 private telephones now; regular

boats to Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh; a thriving market; and five hours of electricity

till around 11pm "which isn't so good."

We talked fishing. Everybody here is an expert on fishing.

And he knew about the Sambor dam.

Like a few of the other mainly old-timers, he'd heard about it in 1970.

"Yes, this was in Lon Nol times," he said. "They said Sambor would

be flooded." No-one here has given it a thought since.

None of the locals know that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is now looking at

two alternatives to be the first to tap the power of the Mekong mainstream - right

outside Sambor's front door.

And no-one in authority has yet been north of Sambor to look at the area and talk

to the people that will be affected, certainly by the bigger of the two plans.

Kratie province is made up of five districts: Chhlong and Snoul in the south; Prek

Prasap on the west of the Mekong (which runs through the middle of the province);

Kratie and, to the north, Sambor.

Sambor - from the Pali Sampheakboreak - means "plentiful" or "bountiful".

"We have the river, and forest, and fish, and even gold," said one old

monk.

Between Sambor and Kratie towns is Kam Pi, where the Mekong breaks up into thousands

of islands. People picnic on the banks, and cool off in the rapids in the holidays.

This is where the Sambor "diversion" - whether it is a dam or a canal -

will be.

According to a Mekong Secretariat report, a big dam at Sambor will be 30.6 kms long;

35m high; cost nearly $4 billion; inundate 800 square kms of land; displace 5,000

people; and generate 3,300-megawatts of electricity. MRC consultants say there is

insufficient data on what such a dam would do to the area's fisheries. The impact

on wildlife rates a total of 56 words in a 600-page report, and concludes there wouldn't

be any "great" effect.

The second, more recent plan - given the blessing of the Cambodian National Mekong

Commission - involves digging a 20-km long, 350-meter wide, 30m high earthen canal,

with a riverwide (four km) concrete "diversion" two-meters high that will

guide water into the canal during the dry season. It will cost $700 million; generate

465 megawatts of power; force no-one from their homes; and have nil environmental

impact (although even the Cambodian officials don't accept that claim).

Even the smaller project is likely to cripple the fisheries, and tamper with the

normal flow of sediment, most of which eventually finds its way to the delta, say

critics.

Whatever project is eventually accepted, the MRC says that Sambor will be Cambodia's

key power supply. The electricity it produces will be sold to Vietnam and Thailand

as "an important source of foreign exchange."

It would also "improve the living conditions of the rural community through

irrigated agriculture and related development." Plus, Sambor enjoys the unique

Mekong privilege of having had "detailed field investigation," the MRC

has been told.

A $910,000 "reappraisal" study is now up for grabs by foreign donors. The

study aims to describe the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the plans,

and recommend ways to mitigate those impacts.

There is one Khmer who has been telling people living on the river about the dam.

He cannot be named here.

"The people don't know about it. They say they are happy that there will be

electricity, but they do not think about the flooding, or losing their fishing and

homes.

"They say the government must solve this problem," he said.

But local people do not consider they can stop the projects. History has ingrained

into them that if the government wants, the government will have, and trying to rally

against that can only mean trouble, he said.

"The only thing they think about is whether they can get fair compensation."

When the implications of a Mekong dam are explained to them, they say it should not

happen.

"The people want to protect this environment," he said.

An old monk agreed: "The people have no history of saying 'no' to the government.

They are afraid. They don't have enough democracy... democracy is like a shadow."

Sambor district governor Nguon Sambath said last year a group of officials, including

some foreigners, visited Sambor town. They came unannounced at 2pm.

"They asked me only about the levels of the river during the dry and wet seasons,"

Sambath said. They told him that if the Kam Pi project went ahead Sambor would be

flooded (which would be under the "big dam" plan). Later in the day, they

said they could "dig channels" and find a way to prevent Sambor flooding

(under the new proposal).

Sambath said he did not tell people about the visit, nor did he discuss the project

with the officials.

"If they build a dam and the district floods, we will have lost everything,"

he said. Schools had already been built, and new lands would have to be found for

the people which would be difficult to do, he said.

It was up to the government to solve this problem. "This is our original homeland.

The villagers don't want to move, even if they are given money. This is my idea,"

he said. "But if this project gives a lot of electricity and improves things

in Cambodia, the people will be happy."

The provincial governors in Kratie were asked to comment. The first governor, Nou

Phoeung, was out of town. The other three were too busy to talk.

Owen Lammars of the International Rivers Network, and four journalists, visited Kam

Pi, Sambor and up almost to the Stung Treng border where the dam's reservoir will

reach.

Flooded forests shelter deep fish-spawning grounds. There are dozens of channels;

some deep and slow, most rapid and shallow, broken by rocks and trees and sand islands.

There are flocks of green, red and blue parrots, herons, eagles, crows and smaller

river birds. There are also wild peacocks, snakes, buffalo and - though not seen

by us - crocodiles, and dwindling numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins.

On the banks and islands are pristine tropical forests, trees and bushes bent by

the force of the river when it rises up six meters or more during the rains.

People come up daily from Sambor and Kratie to this 40-kilometer stretch of Mekong

to fish. They catch small fish to eat themselves and sell the big ones at the markets.

Small fishing boats make the trip down from Stung Treng. This area is locally famous

as a rich fishery.

We were told there were about 25 villages from Sambor to the Stung Treng border,

and many more villages between Kratie and Sambor.

Vang, a fisherman, reckons on a good day he can catch 30 kgs of fish, and ten kgs

if it's slow. When we asked him what type of fish he caught, he frowned and began

reeling off names. Our interpreter laughed and wandered away: "He's said ten

types of fish already and he's still counting."

Sann, who lives on the riverbank for a week every month with his wife and two grandchildren,

had just loaded two 20-kg river fish on his son's boat to take to Sambor market.

His wife makes roof thatches that they shelter under, and will later take back to

sell in town. He fishes.

At regular intervals on the ten-hour trip there are people in wooden boats fishing

in their favorite spots, usually with nylon nets or bamboo traps. They gather fruit

and sweet river flowers for fish soups.

The "river people" practise a home-grown fishery conservation. They take

only the small fish they can eat, and don't "clean out" the deep, forest-shaded

pools where the fish breed.

When this is threatened, the locals react. Recently, groups of Muslim Chams were

evicted from Phnom Penh and Kompong Cham to Kratie, and one of the provincial governors

ordered them to live on the eastern riverbank north of Sambor.

Hundreds of neighboring villagers thumb-printed a complaint to Kratie city fathers,

fearing the Chams - who they maintain are the equivalent of "commercial"

fishers - would ruin the deep spawning grounds. "They have big nets, and they

would have taken everything in the river," said one.

The city agreed, and moved the Chams again, this time away from the river and into

the backblocks of Route 13, the road to Stung Treng known as poor country, full of

"bandits".

Dozens of skeletal bamboo frames, some as far built as having the thatched roofs,

stand on the bank where the Chams were to live.

Ethnic villagers further north talk of military gunboats from Stung Treng coming

down river and using bombs to kill fish. "They have machine guns, so what can

we do?" said one man. "Sometimes I can only get half a kilo of fish a day."

However, no matter how bad they say the fishing is now - and the decline they say

has been rapid, rather than gradual - everyone said that they could always catch

enough to eat, if not enough to sell.

The river is also a kind of security barrier. The Khmer Rouge don't normally cross

the Mekong, or patrol it, because most of the traffic consists only of subsistence

fishermen. Villagers here generally have a good relationship with the Khmer Rouge

- who at least pay for their drinks and do not rape the women. RCAF military are

generally held in more fear than the Khmer Rouge.

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