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As dam’s waters rise, holdout Sesan village leaves villagers say goodbye to ancestral homes

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Flooded streets in Stung Treng’s Srekor village this week following the closure of the gates of the Lower Sesan II Dam. Photo supplied

As dam’s waters rise, holdout Sesan village leaves villagers say goodbye to ancestral homes

After almost three years of holding out, all 76 families from the Stung Treng village of Srekor – located in the reservoir of the newly operational Lower Sesan II Dam – have finally agreed to leave their homes.

Another gate of the controversial hydropower dam was closed on Sunday, causing already-high water levels to rise even further, and leaving some 60 homes to become half-submerged. Faced with still-rising waters and an untenable existence in the village, the predominantly ethnic Lao villagers finally began leaving on Monday.

Fut Khoeun, a Srekor village representative, said that as of yesterday, the water level in the village was at 3.5 metres high, partially covering some houses, including his own.

“We cannot live there anymore,” he said. “It is difficult to live on the water; it’s not like living on land.” He added that the water level continued to increase relentlessly.

Phy, Khoeun’s wife, said all of Srekor’s villagers had moved their belongings to plots of farmland they owned about 4 kilometres away. She said that area would be safe from flooding.

“No one is in the village now,” she said from her remote home, over a crackling phone connection. “Only some are still transporting more of [their belongings].”

Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen officially inaugurated the dam, dismissing widespread environmental concerns surrounding the $800 million, 400-megawatt structure. The dam is expected to lower electricity costs, and increase electric connectivity in parts of the country that remain off the grid.

Representatives from the Hydro Power Lower Sesan II Company couldn’t be reached for comment.

Residents in Srekor and nearby Kbal Romeas, both in Sesan district, had steadfastly refused to move in the face of the massive development since late 2014. Much of the resistance stemmed from villagers’ spiritual attachment to the land and their ancestors’ graves, and the traditional belief that their fates were linked to those of the spirits there. Many also worried that leaving their ancestral home would jeopardise their culture and livelihood, with many dependant on fishing for a living.

Last week Stung Treng provincial authorities informed those living in Srekor and Kbal Romeas that the company would close an additional gate in order to get its first turbine operating by the end of November.

“During the [additional] closure, the water level will go up in both villages and will completely submerge [them],” according to the letter.

However, as of yesterday, about 58 ethnically Phnong families in Kbal Romeas were still holding out on their relocation as the floods had not reached their homes yet.

Nonetheless, Lat Vibol, a villager in Kbal Romeas, said some people were getting ready to move to safe hills in the same village, where some of the villagers also have farmland. But they will move only when the floods reach their homes, and not sooner, he added.

Vibol said some paddy fields nearby had already flooded, and the water was knee-high in some areas – waist-high in others – though no homes had been affected yet.

Man Kong, spokesman for Stung Treng Provincial Hall, said authorities will offer compensation for families to move to the government’s resettlement site or a location of their preference. The compensation will be $6,000 per family or 5 hectares of land – including a newly built home – regardless of location.

“We are giving them compensation to relocate; if they accept, they will not be allowed to return because their homes are flooded,” he said.

Authorities are also providing assistance to villagers to transport their belongings. In a recent letter, Stung Treng authorities have set a deadline of December 31 for families to accept compensation. “In case people have not received compensation, the provincial committee and the Lower Sesan II Hydro Dam will not take responsibility for the loss of any villagers’ assets,” the provincial letter reads.

However, Vibol said he and other villagers were not aware of this letter, and Stung Treng authorities have been preventing outsiders – including NGOs, journalists and members of nearby communities – from entering the two villages.

The water level of the dam’s reservoir, meanwhile, is at 73 metres and rising.

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