Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodian villagers battle Viet dams

Cambodian villagers battle Viet dams

Cambodian villagers battle Viet dams


Flooding, skin rashes, stomach problems, drownings of both people and livestock,

and a decline in fish stocks: these are among a myriad problems recorded in Stung

Treng as a result of Vietnam's Yali Falls dam, according to a new report.

Angry Stung Treng villagers meet to protest plans for a second dam on the Se San river, the source of their livelihoods.

The community-based study found that more than 50,000 people living in Stung Treng

and Ratanakkiri have been either "seriously or moderately" impacted by

the dam, which stands on the Vietnamese side of the Se San river.

The river is one of the Mekong's largest tributaries. It begins in Vietnam's Central

Highlands and southern Laos before winding from east to west through Ratanakkiri

and Stung Treng.

While the effects of the dam in Ratanakkiri were already well known, the study found

the dam has caused environmental damage even farther downstream in Stung Treng.

The vast majority of the 30,000 villagers living along the Se San, Sre Pok and lower

Sekong Rivers in Stung Treng have suffered significant negative effects from the

dam, the report states.

The report's author Ian Baird says the long term consequences could be even more


"The long term impacts are likely to be mainly based on the severe damage done

to the aquatic ecosystem, river hydrology and water quality," says Baird. "Water

levels will not be the same again and neither will the water quality."

Villagers first noticed problems in 1996 when, without warning, water was released

from the 65 square kilometer reservoir in Vietnam and caused flash floods more than

70 kilometers downstream in both Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng.

Since then flooding in both the dry and wet seasons has become an occurrence as regular

as it is unpredictable. It has improved since the hydropower station became operational

but problems still abound. Itchiness, eye irritation and stomach problems are commonplace

with villagers who have contact with, or who drink, the turbid water.

The loss of gardens, livestock, rice fields and fishing equipment to floods, as well

as declining fish stocks, have driven villagers to other unsustainable practices.

"Local people have had to increase wildlife trading, woodcutting [and] cleared

forests to move their rice paddies to higher ground," the report states.

Tapley Jordan, coordinator for Partners for Development's (PFD) Stung Treng office,

says that before the study team began discussing the dam with local villagers they

were bewildered by events.

"It was valuable for them to start hearing information about what's been happening,"

he says.

A coalition of villagers and NGOs has now been formed to study the dam's impact and

battle against the politics of hydropower. Oxfam America, PFD, and the Non Timber

Forest Product project (NTFP) sponsored the research into the dam's impact.

A local NGO, the Culture for Environment and Preservation Association (CEPA), hosted

a workshop June 13 and 14 to disseminate the report to villagers.

Representatives from 30 villages met to discuss the dam's impact. They were outraged

when told that another dam, the Se San 3, was set to begin construction 20 kilometers

downstream from Yali Falls, according to a CEPA press release.

"What more can they do to us?" a local village woman asked the meeting.

"Nearly everything has already been destroyed. If they build another dam there

will be even more destruction. More people will die."

No environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out for Cambodia when the first

dam - Yali Falls - was built. With the proposed Se San 3 the Vietnamese electricity

company considered its impact as far downstream as Voen Say in Ratanakkiri, but not

that on Stung Treng. Construction on the $273 million dam began June 15, the Vietnam

News Agency reported.

Critics argue that large dam projects have led to environmental disaster for the

people who depend on the Mekong sub-region's extensive river network for their livelihoods.

"Building hydro-dams usually costs far more than budgeted and the dams produce

less electricity than the estimates," says Malena Karlsson, environmental advisor

to CEPA.

Construction on the Yali Falls dam began in 1993, and the final turbine was installed

in December last year. It is the largest hydro-power dam in the region, with a budgeted

cost of $1 billion and a generating capacity of 720 megawatts.

The World Bank lent the project its support in November 2001 when it announced a

plan to fund a transmission line from Yali Falls to southern Vietnam.

When the original EIA was conducted with Swiss government funding by Swiss consulting

firm Electrowatt Engineering, the study was limited to the effects only as far as

eight kilometers from the dam site.

Baird maintains that the Swiss consultants and the Interim Mekong Committee (now

the Mekong River Commission), which coordinated the EIA, must take responsibility

for the inadequate assessment.

Had those organizations included the full environmental and economic impact of the

dam, he says, the promise of cheap, clean electricity would have looked far less


The report estimates that the loss of rice production caused by flooding has cost

villagers $1.8 million over the past six years, while a further $1.8 million was

lost in the form of damage to stored rice, boats, houses, drowned livestock and so


The dam could be better managed, says Baird, but not without economic costs to the

dam operators. He maintains that flooding could not be avoided entirely, but if water

were released in a way that mimics natural hydrological patterns that would "reduce

aquatic impacts, including impacts on fish".

"Management could be focused on more downstream flooding but that would cost

money in terms of power generation in Vietnam and it seems unlikely that this would

happen easily," Baird says.

The villagers in Stung Treng are more categorical. They simply want the dam dismantled.

"We want to break the dam. The dam may have cost a billion dollars, but the

lives of Cambodians are worth more than that, and how can they compensate for a life?"

asked one woman from Buong village.

The villagers also did not view the gain in electricity as adequate compensation

for the loss of their livelihoods.

"If we have electricity and we are still hungry, should we just look at the

light? Will that fill our stomachs?" asked a woman from Khamphoun village. "We

can survive without electricity but we can't survive without rice."

The report also takes a swipe at the MRC suggesting that the Yali Falls dam would

be a perfect opportunity for the body to prove its usefulness.

"To date the MRC has failed to effectively coordinate with regard to downstream

impacts," the report states. "The MRC only began to consider the downstream

impacts of the dam after press coverage regarding the plight of the impacted villagers

in Ratanakkiri province was released in March 2000."

The following month the MRC arranged a meeting between Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities

to discuss dam management. The Vietnamese authorities agreed to release water only

gradually and to notify Cambodia first.

Baird maintains that while the MRC established a dialogue committee to discuss Se

San river issues, the discussions have not led to any benefits for the affected Cambodians.

The MRC was unable to respond to the allegations by press time.

If the Vietnamese authorities indeed alert their Cambodian counterparts about the

release of water, it comes as a surprise to villagers in Stung Treng.

"No, we never hear any information [about the release of extra water into the

Se San], " says PFD's Jordan. "That information never gets out into the


After such a massive investment it seems unlikely that the Vietnamese will "break"

the dam, as the villagers hope. Baird says that while some villages in Ratanakkiri

have moved to upland areas, that is not a viable option for most.

"Many would like to be compensated for past impacts as well as for future impacts,"

he says. "[However] some are wary of accepting compensation for fear that it

implies they accept the dam, and in fact they do not.

"People would really like it to be decommissioned. However if this is not possible,

then compensation along with mitigation measures to make the flow of the Se San river

more like it was before would be appreciated."


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