THE Cambodian government, working through the Mekong River Commission (MRC), has
asked Vietnam to mitigate the devastation caused by the first in a series of six
dams proposed on the Se San River in the central highlands of Vietnam.
The Yali Falls dam, blamed for more than 30 deaths and the collapse of fish stocks
and riverbank agriculture in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces, hints at the
destruction to come if the cascade of dams proceeds as planned.
The second dam under construction, Se San 3, will be finished in 2004, one year ahead
of schedule, according to the Vietnam News. But effects from Yali Falls dam, such
as rapidly fluctuating water levels and declining water quality, still plague Cambodia.
At least 39 people in northwest Cambodia have drowned, along with thousands of livestock,
since construction began on the $1.2 billion Yali Falls dam in 1993, reported Probe
International, a Canadian NGO investigating energy projects.
Tha Thong Sanith, 54, a community representative from Stung Treng, came to Phnom
Penh with NGO Forum this October. He said the dam has dramatically changed village
life for many of the 50,000 people living along the Se San River in northeastern
"Now people cannot grow vegetables along the river, people have many kinds of
disease, and the bridges and roads are broken," said Thong Sanith. "Children
living upstream cannot go to school because they are scared of the river."
So far, Vietnam has merely promised to implement the "Five Solutions" approved
by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to reduce impacts of the dam, according
to the minutes of a recent meeting between Cambodia and Vietnam obtained by the Post.
No compensation was offered. Proposals to alter the dam releases to protect inhabitants
and ecosystems downstream stalled, despite urging by international aid agencies and
Theng Tara, chairman of the Cambodian delegation handling Se San River discussions,
met with the Vietnamese negotiators on November 4-8. He indicated that the talks
had only yielded pledges for cooperation on hydrological studies and early warnings
for dam releases.
But Vietnamese negotiators demanded that comments on the new dam, Se San 3, be submitted
by November 27.
"They only gave me three weeks to submit comments, otherwise they will consider
that Cambodia approves the [Terms of Reference (TOR) for the Se San 3 dam] as they
are," said Tara.
He said the countries had not yet agreed how the new dam would proceed, but another
meeting has been scheduled to ratify the TOR for the middle of 2004. Vietnam is not
required to seek approval for the dam under MRC rules since the Se San River is a
tributary of the Mekong River and not part of the mainstream.
But controversy has dogged the project since its inception.
A confidential Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded study of the Se San 3 dam, leaked
this May, blasted earlier studies downplaying the project's effects. The study called
the impact of the dam projects to Cambodia "critical to catastrophic".
The previous two reports, written by two consulting firms, SWECO International in
Sweden and the Swiss-firm Electrowatt, characterized the potential impact of the
Se San 3 project, downstream of Yali Falls dam, as slight while ignoring much of
its effect on the river basin as a whole.
The leaked report, produced by New Zealand consulting firm Worley in 2000, criticized
many of their conclusions. It stated that they "lack[ed] a sound scientific
or quantitative basis". Worley added that the earlier studies were based, at
least in part, on "bad science" and that the proposed Se San 3 dam would
exacerbate "serious conflicts between water users in Vietnam and Cambodia".
But SWECO International, which produced a 1999 feasibility study on Se San 3 dam,
responded by email that the problems in Cambodia were caused by the faulty design
and operation of the Yali Falls dam. They did not affect the validity of its study
or the Se San 3 project.
"We believe that no experienced consultant could ever have predicted that the
spillway gates at Yali would be operated in such a manner that led to the catastrophic
events in Cambodia," wrote Tina Karlberg, president of SWECO International,
on November 3.
Massive water releases during testing at the Yali Falls dam in 1999 swept away homes,
crops and people in Cambodia. SWECO now holds a consulting contract with Electricity
of Vietnam (EVN) to assist with producing the blueprints of the Se San 3 dam.
Electrowatt did not respond to requests for information.
The six dams are estimated to cost more than $2 billion by the time they are completed
over the next decade. The closest will be just 10 km from the Cambodian-Vietnamese
The first, the 720-megawatt Yali Falls dam, was completed in 2002. That same year,
construction began on a second dam, Se San 3, just 20 km downstream from Yali Falls.
Planning for Se San 3 A, Se San 4, Pleik Krong and Than Ong dams has been approved.
The ADB initially floated the idea of funding the $264 million Se San 3 project,
but withheld funds following Worley's report. Vietnam reportedly later accepted financing
from Russian sources.
However, the World Bank (WB), along with the ADB, has bankrolled the Greater Mekong
Subregion Regional Power Grid which aims to string transmission power lines from
China to southern Vietnam. That project relies heavily on hydropower.
Probe International has launched a campaign to publicize the leaked report as part
of its campaign to win restitution for people affected by hydropower projects-particularly
on the Se San River.
Citing Worley's report, it has called for the two consulting companies to be prosecuted
for "professional negligence and misconduct" and halt the construction
of dams on the Se San River.
But Gráinne Ryder, policy director for Probe International, said that the
most pressing concern wasn't money. It was restoring the livelihoods of those left
destitute by the dams.
"Compensation isn't the main issue," she said. "It's restoring the
river. That's technically possible. You can change the river regime."
She proposed implementing a dam release cycle protecting residents and ecosystems
by more closely mimicking the natural river flows.
"It will take a lot of political will, but it could be a real model for the
region and not a source of conflict," she said
As part of the relief response, a consortium of NGOs has organized communities into
the Se San Protection Network in partnership with provincial governments in Ratanakkiri
and Stung Treng.
Community representatives recently came to Phnom Penh on October 20 to meet with
officials from the Swedish aid agency SIDA, which has funded dam construction in
Vietnam in the past.
They hoped to convince SIDA to apply pressure on the Vietnamese government.
Claes Leijon, head of the development cooperation section at SIDA in Cambodia, said
he was optimistic about the outcome, but noted SIDA could only "facilitate dialogue"
with the Vietnamese government.
"There have been some good results as a result of this dialogue," he said.
"They have taken action according to our discussions."
Others have been building a legal case against Vietnam and EVN.
Michael Lerner, a lawyer with Oxfam America, alleges that Vietnam breached international
law and specific commitments it made as a member in the MRC, which he said lacks
the authority or institutional capacity to enforce provisions protecting its members.
Lerner reported that construction began on Se San 3 dam before an Environmental Impact
Assessment was even approved-a clear breach of international best practice and MRC
Prior notification of dam releases, also a requirement of the MRC's agreement, were
often delayed. Provincial authorities in Cambodia sometimes could not prepare villagers
caught downstream in time.
So far, those living on the Se San River feel they can do little about the growing
threat from across the border.
"I think all villages along the river are concerned about the dams," said
Puoun Lieam, 40, a community leader from Ratanakkiri. "We want to demonstrate
against the dam. If we know the road to Yali Dam, we will go and break it."
But another resident from Ratanakkiri, Thong Liean, 48, only lamented the plight
of his village.
"The dam was built in Vietnam," he said. "But the impact was in Cambodia."