The Sesan 3 dam, above, being built on the Vietnamese portion of the Sesan river has had severe impacts on local communities both nearby and downstream. Now, energy-strapped Vietnam has proposed the building of five more hydoelectric dams on the Sesan in Cambodia.
S een from above, the Sesan River is a neat watery ribbon winding southward from Vietnam through northeastern Cambodia before it joins the Mekong near Stung Treng town.
At ground level things are not so picturesque. The Vietnamese government has proposed five new dams for Cambodia's portion of the Tonle Sesan. Construction of the first - a 420 megawatt Sesan II hydroelectric dam with an estimated price tag of $500 million - is scheduled to begin in 2008.
Upstream in Vietnam, two hydropower dams have already been built on the Tonle Sesan and three on the Tonle Srepok, which merges with the Sesan roughly 30 km east of Stung Treng. Their impact on local communities has been drastic, and the plan for more has local Cambodians and environmental NGOs concerned about an array of potential problems ranging from consultation to compensation.
"Villages, houses, schools, pagodas, and roads have been seriously inundated with the Srepok River's fast moving water," the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong Protection Network (3PSN) said in a press statement released on August 16. "Each day the situation is getting worse."
Vietnam has been conducting extensive research into the possibility of exploiting the Tonle Sesan for energy production, said Bun Narith, deputy director of the General Department of Energy at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy. The results of this research have recently been given to the Cambodian government.
"We are studying the details of the five dam projects that Vietnam has suggested," he said. "They have said five hydroelectric dams could be built: Sesan I (90MW) on the Cambodia-Vietnam border; Sesan II (420MW) in Stung Treng; Sesan III in Ratanakkiri (180MW); and finally Preak Leang I (64MW) and Preak Leang II (180MW)."
Vietnamese money will fund the projects - the combined cost of which could reach more than $1 billion - and all the electricity generated will be piped directly to Vietnam. Cambodia will then buy back electricity from its neighbor, Narith said.
Experts have expressed concern that this arrangement will mean that the environmental and societal damage caused by the dams will affect Cambodia, while the benefits of the dams will accrue in Vietnam.
The potentially unequal distribution of benefits is one of the many thorny questions that surround dam-related projects everywhere. Experts say the debate over the damming of the Cambodian section of the Sesan may pull Cambodia into a global debate on the merits of big dams.
"The decision to build a large dam today is rarely only a local or national one," said the World Commission on Dams (WCD) 2000 report. "The debate has been transformed from a local process of assessing costs and benefits to one in which dams in general are the focus of a global debate about development strategies and choices."
Around the world, experience has shown that the development of hydropower schemes inevitably involves trade-offs, said Carl Middleton of the International Rivers Network (IRN).
"Too many schemes have been developed without consultation of local communities and other affected stakeholders, resulting in massive inequities in the distribution of any benefits arising from the projects," he said. "While electricity companies and urban consumers have benefited from the supply of electricity, local communities have suffered the loss of their land, natural resources and livelihoods."
Any benefits Electricity of Viet- Nam (EVN) and its customers may have derived from the construction of three hydropower dams in Vietnam's section of the Tonle Srepok basin have not been shared by Cambodian villagers living downstream. On August 12 their land began to flood, and now, in mid-September, over 1,000 hectares of rice fields in Rattanakkiri remain underwater.
"It has admittedly rained a lot more than normal recently but this flooding is not natural" said Kim Sangha, Coordinator for 3SPN. "It is also caused by change in water flow as a result of the three dams Vietnam has built upstream."
Whether Vietnam will be given permission to construct dams along the Sesan is currently unconfirmed, but local residents are already expressing outrage about the proposals.
"The Cambodian people have already suffered a serious impact from the three Vietnamese dams built upstream," Sangha said. "If the Cambodian government follows the Vietnamese example and builds hydroelectric dams in Cambodia, the social and environmental impact here will get much worse."
Locals and experts are concerned that damming the Sesan will radically transform the area's environment with far-reaching social repercussions.
"If further dams are built they will make this area completely different from before," Sangha said. "If the government feels it has no choice but to build dams, then they must first resettle the area's residents to a safe place that has houses, good roads, schools, hospitals, markets and so on."
The Cambodian government's track record at resettling communities for development purposes, primarily in and around Phnom Penh, has attracted international condemnation.
The Sesan community, as with any community in an area in line to be affected by a new dam, should be fully included in the decision-making before the project begins, said the IRN's Middleton.
"The participation process should be transparent, inclusive and negotiated to ensure that all stakeholders agree on the allocation of risks and benefits from the project," he said.
"Unfortunately, worldwide, it is commonly the experience that communities are poorly consulted in the development process of large hydropower schemes and therefore [bear the] burden of most of the risks - loss of land, natural resources and livelihoods - without receiving an equitable share of the benefits."
Nguyen Son Thuy, political counselor at Vietnam's Embassy in Phnom Penh, said on September 5 that he had had no detailed information about any Vietnamese investments in the construction of hydroelectric dams in Cambodia after the August 22 visit of Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung.
"Hydroelectric dams were not the only topic of discussion between Cambodia and Vietnam," he said. "There are many other fields to discuss."
Nguyen Sinh Hung's visit focused on strengthening friendship between the two countries, he said. Attempts to further cooperation on economic issues, trade agreements and infrastructure projects, such as hydroelectric dams, took second place.
"The two parties just agreed on the main principles of investment, industry and economic cooperation in order to progress together," Nguyen Son Thuy said. "But now, [the two countries] have to meet at lower level, ministry with ministry, to discuss technical details."
MIME said detailed negotiations will proceed between Vietnam and Cambodia regarding the Sesan dam project. No specific mention was made of including the affected communities in the planning process.
"The two parties will continue studying in detail factors such as the impact and the cost of the five dam projects," Narith said. "We will start building each dam when the detailed studies have been done and the two parties have reached an agreement."