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Viet dam full of lethal surprises

Viet dam full of lethal surprises

dam.jpg
dam.jpg

Navigating Ratanakiri's Se San river has become dangerous since construction

of the Yali Falls dam.

A

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

ago.

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

all."

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

manner.

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

periodically cut.

In Taveng district more than a hundred boats have disappeared because the strong

flow.

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

in Vietnam.

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

other week."

"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

them.

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.

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