Home > Local News, Mekong River > Flood of concern for new dam

Flood of concern for new dam

Photo by: Adam Miller
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.”

Phnom Penh Post
Categories: Local News, Mekong River
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