We would rather live in our village and watch it flood until we die ... the river is our life - we cannot move away
Stung Treng province
KbalL Romea village sits in an isolated corner of the eponymous district in Stung Treng province, on the banks of the Sesan River. Livestock roams freely in the community, while local villagers mill about among the wooden homes along the river bank.
Residents of Kbal Romea say their way of life has not changed for decades.
But all that may be about to change with the construction of a huge hydropower dam that could have dramatic affects on Kbal Romea and other villages throughout northeastern Cambodia.
District authorities told Kbal Romea resident Na Ram last month that she and her seven children would have to leave the only home they have ever known to make way for the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 dam project at the end of this year.
Na Ram is just one of thous-ands of indigenous people in northeastern Cambodia facing eviction, relocation and an uncertain future as a result of the construction of the dam.
The 39-year-old ethnic Phanong villager struggles with the fact that the community she has lived in since 1973 will soon be flooded and be nothing but a memory.
The families at risk here live in one of the most culturally diverse areas of the country.
The indigenous communities within Stung Treng comprise ethnic minority groups including the Phanong, Jarai, Kroeung, Tompoun, Prov, Kanch Chak and Lao.
One hundred and twenty two families live in Kbal Romea, just below the confluence with the Srepok River in Stung Treng’s Sesan district. It’s a place where residents rely on the river for tasks ranging from bathing to the irrigation of crops and the collection of drinking water.
Most importantly, the river provides a steady supply of fish to villagers in the area, giving them a vital source of nutrients in a region in which food secur-ity is precarious.
The village is just a few hundred metres from the proposed site of the US$816 million, 75-metre high, 420-megawatt Lower Sesan II hydropower dam which, according to a 2009 environmental impact assessment, will cause at least 38,000 people in 86 villages located along two of the largest rivers in the Mekong basin to lose access to the vast majority of their fishing resources.
An additional 87 villages on tributaries of these two rivers in Ratanakkiri, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces may also lose access to migratory fish, according to the EIA.
The Cambodia-Vietnam Hydropower Company – a joint venture 51 per cent owned by the EVNI Joint Stock Company of Vietnam and 49 per cent owned by local conglomerate Royal Group – is due to begin work on the dam later this year.
Ame Trandem, Mekong campaigner for the conservation organisation International Rivers, said EVNI had demonstrated a lack of concern for the welfare of indigenous communities affected by similar dams.
“EVNI has a long legacy of irresponsible and destructive dam-building in the 3S [Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers] basin.
“The cascade of dams they have built on the Sesan and Srepok rivers in Vietnam has caused large-scale harm to communities living downstream of its dams in Cambodia,” she said.
The 720MW Yali Falls dam in Vietnam, built by EVNI 80 kilometres upstream of the Cambodian border in 1998, is a similar project suspected of having caused a wide range of environmental problems in the region, Trandem says.
“Water quality has deterior-ated greatly in the Sesan and Srepok rivers over the past decade. The symptoms are mainly gastric disorders and skin eruptions, but respiratory problems have also been reported, along with deaths of villagers and their livestock due to poor water quality,” she says.
Trandern adds that a water- quality testing project in 2009 discovered toxic blue-green algae and E. Coli in the water, which was linked to the dams upstream in Vietnam.
Now, experts fear, history may be set to repeat itself with the construction of the Lower Sesan 2.
“Tens of thousands of Cambodians have suffered the environmental, social and econ-omic impacts of its dams for more than a decade,” Trandern says. “These people have yet to receive compensation or a remedy for the impacts.
“EVNI is now repeating its legacy of harm with the Lower Sesan 2 Dam.”
Key Consultants Cambodia (KCC) conducted the EIA for the Lower Sesan 2 dam project in September, 2009, concluding that the dam was likely to flood seven villages in four communes in Stung Treng alone, where at least 4,500 people would have to be resettled.
KCC also stated that at least 78,000 people living upstream of the Lower Sesan 2 dam site were expected to lose access to migratory fish and 1,290 hectares – about 25 per cent of the agricultural land in the Sesan district – would be lost.
KCC executive manager Taing Sophanara raised concerns over the potential impact of the dam at an NGO meeting in 2008.
“Based purely on environmental and particularly social conditions, the project is very questionable,” he said.
Despite concerns by environmentalists and local residents, Environment Minister Mok Mareth said earlier this month the government had extensively researched the impact of the Lower Sesan 2 dam.
Villagers opposed to the project simply could not see the potential benefits of the government’s ongoing development policy, he said.
“The government will relocate villagers who live near the Lower Sesan 2 dam to a new place,” he added.
Choeum Kea, the chief of Kbal Romea village, said villagers would be relocated in December and would receive accommodation comparable with their present housing.
Yet uncertainty over compensation packages has surfaced.
NGO Forum executive director Chhith Sam Ath revealed last month that the Ministry of Economy and Finance was no longer responsible for compensating villagers. That task has fallen to the state power company Electricite du Cambodge.
“It’s confusing. We tried to seek participation in compensation packages from the ministries of Environment and Economy and Finance, then we got a message that the Ministry of Economy and Finance was not responsible,” he said last week, adding that the EDC had not updated him on the situation. EDC officials could not be reached for comment.
Royal Group chairman Kith Meng declined to comment on the project, although in a statement released in April, he said it “will contribute greatly to the continued economic development of Cambodia, ensuring a reliable, moderately priced supply of electricity”.
Yet allegations have also emerged that the Cambodian government plans to sell off the majority of the electricity generated by the Lower Sesan 2 dam – an act that contradicts the potential benefits touted by the project’s organisers.
“This is not about electricity for Cambodia. It is not about reducing the cost of electricity in Cambodia,” Dr Ian Baird, a fisheries expert and geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said.
“Maybe a very small amount of electricity they might use around Stung Treng, but it would be less than one per cent,” Baird said.
He said the province could likely be powered by just 1MW of energy and Cambodia’s lack of a power grid would prevent electricity from the project being distributed nationwide until a grid had been built.
Amid concerns locally about the effect of the dam and its questionable benefit for Cambodia, Arne Trandem says the effects of the dam will also be felt in the neighbouring countries of Vietnam and Laos.
The project, she says, may stifle agricultural development in the region, because the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers supply about 10 per cent of the Mekong River’s sediment.
“The dam will … hinder sediment flow, which carries nutrients responsible for the Mekong’s rich fish productivity and works as an important natural fertiliser for Cambodia’s flood plains and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta,” Trandem says.
Sai Bun Pom, a community representative for the Kbal Romea commune, said villagers in the area would find it difficult to imagine life after the dam’s construction.
“We will face a shortage of food, and our standard of living will be poor,” he said.
“We would rather live in the village and watch it flood until we die, than move out of the village. The river is our life – we cannot move away from the river.”