By Chea Vannak
Stung Treng, Cambodia, November 23, 2015
A hand-painted sign nailed to a tree at the entrance of Sre Ko village along the southern banks of the Se San River in Stung Treng province greets visitors with a disturbing message – one made even more alarming by the seemingly tranquil environment and the slow-moving river.
“Dare to die in village with dam,” reads white letters on the dark-blue sign, referring to the massive dam being built about two kilometers downstream.
More disquieting, however, is that residents of the village remain ill-informed about what will happen after Cambodia’s largest dam is finished in 2019.
“When the village is flooded we will move uphill temporarily,” explains May Dina, 25, a father of one.
“After the floods recede we will return to our homes,” he adds, unaware that there will be no floods.
Dam Moun, a 45-year-old father of four children, echoed Mr. Dina’s view, explaining that the land they live on belongs not just to them but to their ancestors. They cannot leave them, he says.
Village representative Phot Koeun said they had been offered new land to live on, but it is in forest where there is no river. “We live from fishing,” he said. “We are not farmers.”
Nou Phay, a mother of six, said she did not know where she and her family would be relocated or whether they would receive compensation.
Sre Ko village’s 457 residents are dependent on the river that runs beside it. Sometimes, there is seasonal flooding, and this is what residents expect when the dam is completed. They do not know that the flood will be permanent, and that their village will disappear beneath the Lower Se San Dam’s reservoir.
The reservoir will be 336 square kilometers, covering five communes in in Se San district and permanently displacing about 5,000 people. It is located on the Se Kong River downstream from the confluence of the Se San and Sre Pok rivers, about 25 kilometers before the river enters the Mekong River.
Construction of the 75-meter high dam began last year and is scheduled to be completed in 2019 with total costs estimated at $816 million. It has three owners: Cambodia’s Royal Group owns 39 percent, China’s Hydrolancing International Energy has a 51-percent stake and Vietnam’s EVN International owns 10 percent.
When it is complete it will generate 400 megawatts of power, which will supply four provinces besides Stueng Treng with electricity: Kampong Cham, Kratie, Preah Vihear, and Ratanakkiri, ending their dependence on electricity imported from Laos.
Besides displacing 5,000 people, environmentalists have warned that the dam will deplete fish stocks, inundate forests, and impoverish farmers downstream as the rich sediment the river deposits on farmland during the rainy season will also disappear.
Fish is a staple food in Cambodia, especially for those who live along rivers, and its protein is irreplaceable, environmentalists warn. The impact on the physical health of those who depend on rivers is incalculable, they say, pointing out that on average Cambodians consume about 46 kilograms of fish a year each.
Ouch Vibol, an activist at the Cultural and Environment Preservation Association of Cambodia in Stung Treng, said fish stocks will be depleted on both sides of the dam and some species will face extinction because the dam will block their migration routes. “At least 50 fish species will face extinction after the dam starts operating,” Mr. Vibol said.
Mr. Vibol said families along the river are dependent on fish for consumption as well as sale. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediment in the river, which in time will make farmland along its banks less fertile and cause erosion. The health of those living downstream will also be affected due to pollution during construction of the dam, he added.
Oeu Nhun, a father of three in Plok commune downstream from the dam, says he is already noticing a decline in fish stocks. He said he used to catch up to 10 kilograms of fish on a good day, but since construction of the dam began fish are getting scarce. He blames this on pollution.
Plok commune chief Ngoun Thang said 80 percent of the commune’s residents depend on fish from the river. “Without fishing, people have no work and no way to feed their families,” he said.
Even vendors at markets are beginning to be alarmed. Srey Pheap, a vendor at Stung Treng market, said she was already noticing fewer fish arriving for sale, and that they were getting smaller. She said, however, that she was not sure whether this was the result of the dam’s construction.
“We rarely see big fish anymore,” Ms. Pheap said. “Now, we only see medium and small fish.”
Mr. Vibol said fish farms and aquaculture might be a solution and he called on the government and NGOs to provide training to people living downstream from the dam to teach people how to do this.
Benefits and Compensation
Doung Pov, provincial deputy governor of Stung Treng, said construction of the dam is about 40 percent complete and that the process of compensating those who will be displaced is underway.
In Sre Ko commune alone, authorities have convinced about 50 percent of its residents to relocate to higher ground, Mr. Pov said. This followed education campaigns in three of its five village, he explained.
“Construction of the dam is going ahead. We cannot sit by and wait for villages to be submerged. We have to help them leave and will continue to work with the people,” Mr. Pov said. “Even if they refuse to cooperate with us we will keep trying.”
Stung Treng will no longer need to import electricity from Laos after the Lower Se San II starts generating power, Mr. Pov said. This energy will also power four other northern provinces, where the lack of electricity is hobbling development, he added.
Still, some residents of affected areas say they are not being adequately compensated.
Back in Sre Ko village, mother of six Nou Phay says she does not know where her family is supposed to move to, or when. She is afraid she will be offered a “take it or leave it” deal. “I am afraid I will get nothing if I reject an offer,” she said.
Sre Ko commune chief Seak Mekong said families are afraid of being cheated. Provincial officials had previously said the companies building the dam would offer each household a 50 by 100 meter plot for a home along with five hectares of farmland.
Souy Ngoeun, 35, a former resident of Sre Sronok commune has already been relocated to a new house about 20 kilometers away along a road to Ratanakkiri province. “I was afraid of being flooded out,” she said. Still, she says her family has yet to receive any farmland and there is no work for her and husband to make a living. “How can we feed ourselves?” she asked.
Tek Vannara, executive director of NGO Forum, said a committee should be set up to build trust with those affected by the dam and help them move on – not just to new houses but new lives.
If village residents lack confidence in those in positions of authority the problems will not go away, he said. Mr. Vannara said a proposal has been made to the Ministry of Mines and Energy to establish an independent panel comprising all those involved in the project and those affected by it to arrive at an agreement over compensation.
Compensation, Mr. Vannara said, is the main issue. It is damaging the reputation of the companies involved in the project, activists say. The lack of clearly defined and fair compensation – on top of the exclusion of communities from the decision-making process – is also heightening desperation among those who live along the river’s banks.
A sign at the entrance to Sre Ko village warns that residents will chose to die in their village rather than move to make way for the reservoir that will engulf them.
New houses are being built for the 5,000 people who live in the area the dam’s reservoir will submerge.
Lead image: Fisherman Oeu Nhun, who lives downstream from the dam, says fish have been getting scarce since construction of the dam began in 2014. Scheduled to be completed in 2017.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Mekong Eye and Mekong Matters Journalism Network, with full editorial control to the journalist and their outlet.