From the hammock beneath his home in Sre Ko village along the southern banks of the Se San River in Stung Treng province, Fort Kheun remains adamant that he will not relocate to make way for the 336-kilomter reservoir that will stretch behind the Lower Se San River Dam after it is built.
He wants construction of the dam to stop, but he has a strategy for remaining in his home if it proceeds. “I will buy 600 bamboo trees to make a floating house,” he said. “When the reservoir covers my home we will float above it, so that I can still live in my village.”
Mr. Kheun is one of the more outspoken critics of the $816 million, 75-meter high dam that will displace 5,000 people to supply electricity to five provinces. “Electricity?” he asks angrily. “Our village can survive without electricity. We don’t need it.”
He also has a message to the companies constructing the dam. “Please go away, you have only just started your project and my forest is going, my wild animals are fleeing to other countries. Is this protecting nature?”
After he calms down, Mr. Kheun explains that he and his family cannot leave because their lives, and those of their ancestors, are rooted in their village. The spirits of his ancestors reside in the village and to move would be an insult to them, he says.
This is the village where the slogan “Dare to Die in Village with Dam” was first inscribed on a wooden placard. Variants are spreading from home to home and also the village pagoda.
Mr. Kheun said residents first learned of the dam when a relocation survey was being conducted. He says that because they are an ethnic minority they were left out of discussions about the dam that will inundate five communes.
Vany, 38, survives by fishing with other women from the village. Catches are declining since construction of the dam began, she said. “We will die because of the dam.”
Like others in the village, she says her family will build a floating home if their homes are torn down because her first memories are of the river. “It is better to kill my family than relocate us,” she explains.
Mr. Kheun said he is not opposed to development, but says it should bring happiness, not suffering and sadness. He says residents of the villages have been threatened to take compensation. “Why do they do this?” he asks.
At an ethnic Lao village in Ratanakkiri’s Veun Sai district, opposition to the dam is also strong. The village in Pong commune is already dealing with the effects of the second largest dam in Vietnam, the Yali Falls Dam.
Flash floods happen a few times a year, says Voy Sot, 60. The flash floods destroy crops and sweep away livestock as well as people, Voy Sot says. “We can handle floods from rain but when the Yali [Falls] Dam opens its reservoir we get flash floods. If they happen during the day we can take our belongings to higher ground, but at night we cannot save anything,” she says.
“We are caught in the middle. If they finish the Lower Sesan II, how can we survive when Yali opens its reservoir and the Lower Sesan II blocks the water in its reservoir?”
The Vietnamese and Cambodian governments worked together to create an early warning system for major releases of water from the Yali Falls Dam, but this system does not work, Voy Sot says.
“I would like to ask the government to do a bit of research on how this dam will affect us,” she said.
Doung Pao, deputy governor of Stung Treng province, said the project has already been approved by the National Assembly and construction is proceeding. “Even if they refuse to cooperate with us, we will keep trying [to relocate them],” he said. “We will not let them die.”
Stung Treng will no longer need to import electricity from Laos after the Lower Se San II starts generating power. This energy will also power four other northern provinces that lack sufficient electricity, Mr. Pao said.
The dam is located on the Se Kong River, downstream from the confluence of the Se San and Sre Pok rivers, about 25 kilometers before Se Kong enters the Mekong River. Construction 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.
The Yali Falls Dam is located 70 kilometers upstream from the Cambodian-Vietnamese border on the Se San River. It reportedly has a 64 km reservoir. Flooding of villages downstream from it was first reported in October 1996, when it was still under construction. The first floods were attributed to a broken diversion dam.
Voy Sot says her experience living downstream from one dam has made her, and other residents of her village, deeply troubled by news of another one downstream.
Fish stocks have been declining and water levels are erratic. Sometimes during the dry season it is possible to walk across the Sesan River, she said. “How will fish be able to move when the Lower Se San is built?” she asked.
What is happening in Pong commune is not unique. In Chey Uddom commune in Lumphat district, residents of Veun Sa village also face flash floods, declining fish stocks and lower rice yields.
Tan Cheang, 58, says about 30 people have drowned in flash floods. “The water comes too quickly before we can reach higher ground,” he says. “What will happen when the other dam opens?” he asks.
Officials never inform them in advance, he says, adding that they only discover what is happening to their river after there is a problem. This heightens anxiety and fear and fuels mistrust, environmentalists say.
Along with displacing about 5,000 people, they warn that the dam will deplete fish stocks, inundate forests, and also impoverish farmers downstream because the sediment the river leaves on farmland during the rainy season will disappear.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that all hydroelectric projects are carefully thought through by the government before they proceed. Officials consider environmental impacts, he has said.
Kem Ley, an analyst who has led research on the Lower Sesan II project, said the compensation and resettlement process has lacked transparency and consistency. There was no consultation at the very beginning of the project development planning, he said.
Although the dam will generate electricity for five provinces those who will be most affected have been left in the dark. – Additional Reporting by Chea Vannak
Fort Kheun’s home in Sre Ko village. He says it would be an insult to the spirits of his ancestors to leave them. KT/Vireak Mai
Main image: Women fishing on the Se San River late last month. Opposite: the river in Pong commune. KTs/Vireak Mai
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.