Navigating Ratanakiri's Se San river has become dangerous since construction
of the Yali Falls dam.
t least five Cambodians have been killed, crops destroyed and fishing boats and
equipment lost after a Vietnamese power station released water into the Se San river
causing sudden surges in the volume and current downstream in Ratanakiri.
According to the environmental impact assessment (see separate story, page 10), the
dam has been built and will be put into full-time operation with no consideration
to the effect it will have on Cambodia, despite its run-off being channeled into
the Se San which eventually feeds into the Mekong near Stung Treng.
The Government and NGOs have confirmed that the water spillage from the dam has caused
rapid and drastic changes in the water levels of the Se San river since December.
In the worst incident so far, three teenage girls were killed when the boat they
were in was caught up in a sudden surge of water and strong currents about a month
Dr. Yang Saing Koma, Executive Director of the Centre d'Étude et de Développement
Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC), said the girls were trying to cross the river at night
with four friends when their boat was overturned.
The other four people in the boat managed to swim to safety.
Dr Koma said he was concerned that people in the area had not been warned about the
dam and did not realize the danger they were in.
"The people have no awareness of the dam and no one has given them information
about the dam or its impact [on the river]," he said.
"We are more concerned about their lives, while they don't seem concerned at
Two other local people have drowned in similar but separate incidents dating back
to December. Dr Koma said that district officials in Andong Meas and Taveng told
him Kwam Chum, a middle aged farmer, drowned when he tried to cross the river to
get to his farm but got caught by the suddenly rising river and swift currents. They
said a fifth victim - an unidentified soldier - was also drowned in a similar
Ratanakiri first deputy governor, Van Chunly, confirmed the people had died but said
the matter was still been investigated.
In addition to the human cost, the river's now-erratic behavior has taken a toll
on crops, boats and fishing equipment. Communication with the area has also been
In Taveng district more than a hundred boats have disappeared because the strong
Dr Koma said one of the villagers told him that he took two boats to the market which
he beached on a sandy bank while he went to make his purchases. But by the time he
got back, the river had suddenly risen and carried his boat off.
He said that three villages had started to pack up and move into slash-and-burn agriculture
rather than live near the Se San river.
International NGO Oxfam has been working with people affected by the Yali Falls dam
An Oxfam spokeswoman said that they were "very concerned about the preventable
humanitarian disaster that resulted from an incident at the Yali dam in Vietnam the
"We feel this highlights the importance of proper basin-wide planning for dams,
and are concerned that dam planning too often stops at national borders.
"We have written to Vietnam National Mekong River Committee General Secretary,
Mr Nguyen Hong Toan, to state our concern and request an update on what action is
being taken by the committee and its fellow country members on this issue.
"In particular we will be looking forward to hearing how the Vietnamese Government
will be assisting the Cambodian people who have suffered ... and how it plans to
prevent such incidents in the future."
Koy Sokha, director of Virak Chay National Park, said that the unexpected water releases
are making river travel in the area difficult with the sudden surges of too much
water or - when water is being channeled into the dam - not enough.
He said that people usually could walk across the Se San River in the dry season,
but dared not anymore because of the fear that it would suddenly rise.
He even anticipates the usual holiday revelers at Khmer New Year will stay away from
the sandy beaches and swimming areas because of the river's unpredictability.
So far all evidence for the damage caused by the dam has been anecdotal, because
no environmental studies on the impact to Cambodia were done prior to planning or
building the dam despite extensive international involvement in its construction.
With no forward knowledge of the dams effects, no contingency plan has been put in
place by either the Vietnamese or Cambodian authorities, though complaints and reports
are now being shuttled back and forth.
Sin Niny, Vice-Chairman of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC), said a
report on the problems has been sent to the Vietnamese via the Mekong River Commission.
Niny said that the CNMC has suggested to the Vietnamese authorities that they form
a committee with Cambodia to investigate the flooding.
"We have to find out the real impact of the dam," Niny said.
He said that if the reports are true then they indicate major problems for the country,
but if they are untrue it could be seen by Vietnam as an attempt to unfairly embarrass
Sin Kandy, advisor to Ke Taing Lim who is the Cambodian public works minister and
chairman of the Council of the MRC, said Taing Lim had advised the secretariat of
the MRC to negotiate a solution with Vietnam.
Meanwhile at a local level Dr Koma is calling on the Vietnamese authorities to set
up a warning system so that Cambodians will not be caught unawares of a sudden influx
of water into the area.
The Vietnamese Embassy refused to comment.