May 15, 1997
Sambor, Cambodia — A way of life could disappear in meeting the demand of electricity. Having survived the Khmer Rouge terror, deadly diseases and even tiger attacks, stoic peasants in this remote corner of Cambodia now must ponder irrevocable change: The Mekong may be dammed and their fields, homes and temples flooded by the “Mother of Waters.”
“The land is good here, and we are too old to move,” says 68-year-old Say Nhek, quietly looking across the mighty river. “I want electricity for my house, but if it means flooding, it would be so difficult to decide.”
The probable relocation sites for Say Nhek and his family of 11 are rocky and malarial. There are no fat catfish or other sources of vital protein the Mekong now yields.
“Maybe the dam would be good for Cambodia,” suggests Yun Kim, the local headman. “I have read countries with hydro-electric power are progressive. But I see problems. Many people just want to live with their land and their culture.”
These villagers are among millions whose lives will be dramatically altered as governments, international agencies and private entrepreneurs move to harness the last of the world’s great untamed rivers. Most are poor, but the Mekong sustains them.
Here, the proposed Sambor Dam would flood more than 310 square miles, displacing 60,000 people and endangering habitat where Irrawaddy dolphin swim and tigers still roam.
ONE OF MANY DAMS
The $4 billion dam would generate revenue for an impoverished Cambodia through sale of electricity to power-hungry neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.
Sambor is only one of numerous projects, proceeding or projected, along the 2,600-mile length of the Mekong, which originates in the snowy heights of Tibet and courses through four SEA countries before reaching the South China Sea.
A dozen mainstream dams, along with some 200 on the Mekong’s tributaries, are being considered by multilateral agencies, while China is quietly planning at least a dozen on its own extent of the river.
An area larger than France and home to more than 50 million people, the Mekong basin is also to have all-weather roads and railways, modern water transport, tourist resorts and riverside industries.
‘ASIA’S LAST FRONTIER’
Today, the world’s 12th longest river is virgin by comparison to most. It was only bridged in 1994, with the opening of a span between Thailand and Laos. Only one dam, China’s Manwan, has gone up to date.
A timeless quality still prevails along many stretches. At Sambor, the “Mother of Waters,” as it is called, becomes a riverine forest of islands and half-submerged trees bending with the current. Monkeys and lizards bask on its banks. Many riverside dwellers have never encountered foreigners.
Their remoteness, and decades of war in Indochina, kept the Mekong out of reach of developers who now herald the basin as “SEA’s greatest untapped resource” and “Asia’s last frontier.”
Conservationists urge that mistakes made on other rivers not be repeated. Once pristine rivers like Russia’s Volga are awash with filth. The much-diverted waters of the Colorado in the American West reach the sea only in years of high flood. Millions of people in China and India suffer after being uprooted to make way for reservoirs.
The Mekong countries themselves are concerned about possible “water wars” as each siphons off more water and leaves less for those downstream.
“There is a chance the dam builders will be kept at bay and the Mekong allowed to function naturally. But it’s not looking very good,” says Patrick McCully of the US-based International Rivers Network. “The Mekong is a dream come true for the world’s dam builders.”
Whatever development path is followed, it is clear the Mekong’s days as a free-running waterway are almost over. The economic logic is powerful. Cambodia and Laos are among the poorest nations on earth and have yet to tap hydro-electric power. Thailand, where energy demand grows by 10% each year, and future economic dynamo Vietnam, are eager to buy what power they can.
But there is little evidence the people directly affected by mega-projects are being consulted.
At Sambor, which translates as “bounty”, District Chief Ngun Sambath says authorities haven’t informed villagers about the proposed dam. Many interviewed have never heard of it.
“I am for development, but if the impact is too great on villagers and their culture then there will be many problems,” says Hong Bo Yuth, a Buddhist abbot. “Even if the government says the dam is good, I will oppose it. Nobody wants it here.”
Arrayed around him are a dozen people, most of them elderly folk who survived American bombing and Khmer Rouge massacres in the 1970s. They sit in the shadows of the One Hundred Column Pagoda, which is one of Cambodia’s most revered shrines and would be submerged under the dam’s reservoir.
The town of Sambor, 120 miles NE of the capital, Phnom Penh, was a hub of an anciant kingdom and burial site of several kings. But the latest 600-page study on Mekong dams doesn’t mention its cultural significance and devotes just 56 words to the impact on wildlife.
Categories: Mekong Utility Watch