Lower Sesan 2 Dam jeopardizes lives of millions of Cambodia’s river dwellers

With an increasing need for energy, the Royal Cambodian Government has spent nearly a billion US dollars on a hydroelectric dam that it claimed was necessary for industry. However, the real social and economic cost of the dam, which will flood an area equivalent to a small province and submerge thousands of families’ houses, might far exceed its construction cost as it might deprive millions of Cambodians of their most important food staple.

A family out fishing in Mekong River close to its confluence with Sesan and Srepok River on a cloudy day in June

It is the beginning of the monsoon season in June and it did not take very long for Thongming a Laotian-Cambodian fisherman, to catch three big fish and made a big feast that could serve about 10 people from his lucky catch. “These days normally we have to spend nearly all day to catch the fish, but it’s been better this time of the year. There seem to be more fish in the river,” said Thongming. For him and his neighbours, natives of Koh Saray, a commune of 20,000 people on an island in the Mekong River in Stung Treng Province of north-eastern Cambodia, the river has been merciful to them this year in allowing many species of Mekong fish to swim easily into their nets. Not far from the island, however, the rumbling of cranes and tractors are constant reminders that their luck might not last long.

In November 2012, the Cambodian government approved a proposal to build a hydroelectric dam in Stung Treng Province in the country’s north-eastern interior. The dam site is situated on the Sesan River, one of the three large tributary rivers in the ‘3S River Basin’ that flows into the Great Mekong: the Sesan, Srepok, and Sekong rivers. The dam is 1.5 km downstream from the confluence of Sesan and Srepok rivers and 25 km from where they meet the Mekong. The 816 million USD project was first proposed as a joint venture between the Cambodian Royal Group and EVN International Joint Stock Company, a Vietnamese state enterprise. However, the Vietnamese counterpart later took a step back and retained 10 per cent of its share while a newcomer, China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, took up a 51 per cent share, with the Royal Group retaining 39 per cent. The dam is currently under construction and the Cambodian government prohibits people from entering the site without permissions. 

According to the Cambodian government, the Lower Sesan 2 Hydroelectric Dam (LS2) project is crucial for meeting the energy demands of the country’s growing industries as well as for lighting houses in rural Cambodia where most inhabitants still depend on kerosene lamps. However, for many civil society workers, environmentalists, and locals whose livelihoods depend on the resources provided by the Sesan River, tapping the river that never goes dry even in the gravest drought could mean kissing good bye to the lives they and their ancestors have known forever.

The temporary rock-filled embankment of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam

Move or be submerged

Once completed, it is estimated that the 75-metre-high LS2 Dam will create a reservoir of about 336 sq km. In other words, the storage dam will submerge an area equivalent to 47,059 football fields, most of which is a forest area in Cambodia’s northeastern hinterland. Along with the forest which will be cleared for timber by the Royal Group before the water rises, the dam will flood Srae Kor Commune on the Sesan River together with Sre Sronok, Kbal Romeas, and Krabei Chrun communes along the Srepok River, displacing nearly 5,000 people from seven villages along the two rivers.

Convinced that the benefits of the dam outstrip its costs, the Cambodian government promised a resettlement plan and compensation packages for the villagers who have to be evacuated. The authorities are offering 50 USD per square meter of the villagers’ land and have built houses in four resettlement locations, two along the road to Ratanakiri Province, an eastern province bordering Vietnam known for its wilderness, and two others in the forest of Stung Treng Province. At first glance, the modern-looking concrete houses built by the government in the resettlement areas seem a decent upgrade from the thatched wooden houses that most villagers occupy. The authorities also promised to supply the resettlement houses with electricity and subsidies for basic commodities, such as rice. However, many people are still determined not to move from their traditional homes.

The map of Lower Sesan 2 Hydroelectric Dam and the area that would be flooded (courtesy of Mekong Watch and 3S Rivers Protection Network)

Like many other villagers, Phavee, a 58-year-old farmer from Srae Kor Commune, has known no other life beyond her commune and the river.  She said that one of the most important things for her is to stay on her ancestral land. “I don’t care about development and will not abandon my ancestral graves no matter what.” Sarakom, from the same village, pointed out that many Srae Kor villagers were tricked by state officials into putting their fingerprints on documents in April 2015 without being fully informed that by doing so, they were giving their consent to the resettlement plan.

“The government offers 1,500 USD per each family grave. However, they kept changing their mind about the offer and have reduced it. No matter what, it’s very strange to say that our ancestral graves could be sold,” said Sarakom.

Fearing that they would have nowhere else to go, 207 families of Srae Kor Commune have accepted the compensation package and resettlement plan while the rest have not yet made up their minds on the matter. Nasuta, a native of Srae Kor Commune, added that the decision whether to move or to stay until the water rises as dam construction forges ahead has split many families apart in the past several months. For Tiankui and Penhna, farmers aged 37 and 21 from Sre Sornok Commune, there is no other choice but to move. They said that most villagers in their commune have agreed to the resettlement plan because the village chiefs in their villages already put their thumbprints on the documents to approve the plan and there is simply no other choice.

From right to left, Sarakom, Nasuta, and Phavee, three elderly natives of Srae Kor Commune on the bank of Sesan River who determined to stay on despite the fact that their villager would be flooded once the dam is completed

According to Meaeh Mean, an anti-dam activist from 3S Rivers Protection Network, the relocation plan would be detrimental to the natives upstream on the Sesan and Srepok rivers. He said that relocation sites are about 25 km from the rivers and that the farmland provided by the government at the relocation sites is far from fertile. “For the villagers whose source of protein comes mainly from fish in the rivers, being locating to a site 25 km away from the river will definitely cause a lot of hardship,” he said. Having been to the relocation sites, the anti-dam activist said that there is also no guarantee that the government will provide electricity for the villagers because the relocation areas are very isolated and no electricity lines could be seen.

 

Depleting fish stocks

In addition to the forced relocation of thousands of villagers, the dam could also put at risk the food security of millions of people along the Mekong River and the 3S River Basin. According to many fish experts and environmentalists, the negative impacts of the LS2 Dam on many fish species of the Mekong might be even worse than any previous dam constructed on the main stem of Mekong River.

The confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers is only 25 km upstream of where the two join the Mekong. The two rivers are not only major arteries of the Mekong River Basin, but the main migration routes for many of the region’s unique fish species. Meaeh, an advocate of a dam-free Mekong and 3S Rivers, pointed out that putting up a barrier at the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok which many species of fish have to swim past annually to spawn could significantly reduce numbers or even cause the extinction of certain fish species unique to the region. “Many fish species swim up here all the way from Tonle Sap Lake [the largest freshwater lake of Southeast Asia connected to the Mekong in central Cambodia, which supplies fish to millions of Cambodians]. With the dam, the fish and people who rely on them would both be devastated,” said Meaeh.

Meaeh Mean, an anti-dam activist from 3S Rivers Protection Network, thrillingly shows off the fish that Thongming a Laotian-Cambodian fisherman

According to International Rivers, a think tank which monitors river ecology worldwide, the latest study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the LS2 Dam would cause a 9.3 per cent reduction of fish stocks in the 3S River Basin and might drive about 50 local species of fish to the verge of extinction. Ouch Vibol, an activist from the Culture and Environment Preservation Association of Cambodia (CEPA), said that since fish are one of the most important food staples of people along the basin, a reduction in fish species could jeopardise the main source of protein of millions of people upstream and downstream of the dam as well as local traditions of the region originating from the abundant resources the basin provides.

“If we think of Tonle Sap Lake as the beating heart of Cambodia which sucks in from the Mekong and other tributary rivers and pumps out water to keep the water flowing during the dry season while nursing thousands of fish species before they swim up river, then building a dam on the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok is like cutting the main artery to the heart,” said the CEPA activist. He added that besides reductions of fish numbers, the dam would also affect the flow of sediment in the river, which in the long run could reduce the fertility of farmland along the river and also exacerbate the erosion process.

The lucky catch, a fisherman from one of the Mekong River’s islands lifts out a meal that could feed several members of his family  

Thongming, a Laotian-Cambodian fisherman who lives about 30 km downstream from the dam site, said that unlike in the past where many big fish could easily be caught within a few hours, at present he might get a single big catch after spending the whole day casting his fishing net, if he is lucky. He added that at this time of the year (June 2015), which is when many species of Mekong fish migrate into the Sesan and Srepok, more fish are caught. He suspected that the reason behind the increased catch might be because the fish could not swim up river through the confluence of Sesan and Srepok River as they used to, due to the dam construction, which has already altered the river flow.    

 

Energy for whose benefit?

Despite several ecological and socio-economic drawbacks to the LS2 Dam, the Cambodian government is adamant that the installed capacity of about 400 MW would bring more development to the region. With more energy to feed industry, the authorities claim the dam will create more jobs in the region and that more households would be able to enjoy stable incomes in the industrial sector. However, many people frown upon the government’s suggestion that native people from the area which will be flooded could become industrial workers, because they were given no other alternative in the first place.    

According to Premrudee Daoroung, coordinator of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), aka Foundation for Ecological Recovery, an organisation based in Thailand which keeps track of environmental issues in Southeast Asia, native people along the Sesan and Srepok, most of whom are not used to the cash economy, would suffer grave social and economic consequences from the dam. “Some of the native people in the region don’t even speak Cambodian, but their native dialect. So, in comparison, imagine what would happen if people who speak no Thai came to work in factories in Bangkok,” said Premrudee. “To me, the project is totally illegitimate, since I don’t see any benefit that it would bring at all.” She added that the manner in which the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the project was approved is also very controversial since the communities that would be affected were never consulted and whole EIA report was never published. In fact, while the Cambodian government promised to improve the EIA process by taking transboundary impacts of the dam into consideration, dam construction is still forging ahead.

Chinese construction workers battling against the rain at work in the rock-filling embankments of the dam where the permanent concrete structure which seems like a flood can be spotted

Meaeh, an environmental defender of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, rejected as empty promises the Cambodian government’s claims that the dam will electrify more houses and might even lower electricity costs in Cambodia’s remote regions. “I think most of the energy produced by the LS2 Dam will be either transmitted to Phnom Penh or sold to Vietnam. The locals who bear the cost of the dam would not really benefit much from it”, said Meaeh. “Currently, only about 24 per cent of Cambodians have access to electricity and the price of electricity in the country is one of the most expensive in the world without any sign that it would go down”.

Ouch, another river defender from CEPA, pointed out that the government’s decision to build the dam in a flat area that would cause massive flooding and soaring construction costs has been very dubious since the beginning. He mentioned one of the primary reasons for constructing the LS2 Dam might not in fact be the need for energy, but the lucrative profits from logging the forest areas that would be flooded. “By building the dam in a dense tropical forest area, the government would already be able to reap massive benefits from logging even before the dam could produce electricity,” said Ouch. “I have also been told by many villagers from the villages upstream that some public officials illegally cut down trees in national parks of Ratanakiri Province beyond the reservoir area and put the logs in the rivers to claim that they are from areas which need to be cleared before the water rises.”

The large cement bridge built besides the dam embankment on top of a bottlenecked stream where the fast-flowing Sesan River has been squeezed

Under the blazing sun of humid June when well-to-do Cambodians were seeking shelter in air-conditioned venues, I accidentally met Saran, a native from Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia’s northeastern frontier famed for its wilderness, at a coffee shop. Speaking some Thai and fluent in English, he passionately told stories about his childhood when he enjoyed spending much of his holiday on Sesan River’s bank fishing and throwing rocks into the river. He said that his beloved home province has changed tremendously in the past decade. “Although much of the area in Ratanakiri is designated as national parks, illegal logging is still very prevalent and the Sesan River is not the same anymore. There are less and less fish in the river since the construction of O Chum 2 Hydroelectric Dam back in the 90s,” said Saran. When asked about Lower Sesan 2 Dam, the Ratanakiri’s native bursted into a sarcastic laugh and said “the government always use the same rhetoric about how our country needs more industries and energy as justification for many development projects, but besides the government themselves and Phnom Penh people, the poor in the countryside is always the one who suffer.”

Lushly forest along the banks of the union of Sesan and Srepok River several kilometers from the confluence of the two where the Lower Sesan 2 Dam construction is ongoing