Mekong Utility Watch

Cambodian villagers battle Viet dams

Phnom Penh Post
July 5, 2002

Flooding, skin rashes, stomach problems, drownings of both people and livestock, and a decline in fish stocks are among a myriad problems recorded in Stung Treng as a result of Vietnam’s Yali Falls dam, according to a new report.


The community-based study found that more than 50,000 people living in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri have been either “seriously or moderately” impacted by the dam, which stands on the Vietnamese side of the Se San river.

The river is one of the Mekong’s largest tributaries. It begins in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and southern Laos before winding from east to west through Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng.

While the effects of the dam in Ratanakkiri were already well known, the study found the dam has caused environmental damage even farther downstream in Stung Treng.

The vast majority of the 30,000 villagers living along the Se San, Sre Pok and lower Sekong Rivers in Stung Treng have suffered significant negative effects from the dam, the report states.

The report’s author Ian Baird says the long term consequences could be even more serious.

“The long term impacts are likely to be mainly based on the severe damage done to the aquatic ecosystem, river hydrology and water quality,” says Baird. “Water levels will not be the same again and neither will the water quality.”

Villagers first noticed problems in 1996 when, without warning, water was released from the 65 square kilometer reservoir in Vietnam and caused flash floods more than 70 kilometers downstream in both Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng.

Since then flooding in both the dry and wet seasons has become an occurrence as regular as it is unpredictable. It has improved since the hydropower station became operational but problems still abound. Itchiness, eye irritation and stomach problems are commonplace with villagers who have contact with, or who drink, the turbid water.

The loss of gardens, livestock, rice fields and fishing equipment to floods, as well as declining fish stocks, have driven villagers to other unsustainable practices.

“Local people have had to increase wildlife trading, woodcutting [and] cleared forests to move their rice paddies to higher ground,” the report states.

Tapley Jordan, coordinator for Partners for Development’s (PFD) Stung Treng office, says that before the study team began discussing the dam with local villagers they were bewildered by events.

“It was valuable for them to start hearing information about what’s been happening,” he says.

A coalition of villagers and NGOs has now been formed to study the dam’s impact and battle against the politics of hydropower. Oxfam America, PFD, and the Non Timber Forest Product project (NTFP) sponsored the research into the dam’s impact.

A local NGO, the Culture for Environment and Preservation Association (CEPA), hosted a workshop June 13 and 14 to disseminate the report to villagers.

Representatives from 30 villages met to discuss the dam’s impact. They were outraged when told that another dam, the Se San 3, was set to begin construction 20 kilometers downstream from Yali Falls, according to a CEPA press release.

“What more can they do to us?” a local village woman asked the meeting. “Nearly everything has already been destroyed. If they build another dam there will be even more destruction. More people will die.”

No environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out for Cambodia when the first dam – Yali Falls – was built. With the proposed Se San 3 the Vietnamese electricity company considered its impact as far downstream as Voen Say in Ratanakkiri, but not that on Stung Treng. Construction on the $273 million dam began June 15, the Vietnam News Agency reported.

Critics argue that large dam projects have led to environmental disaster for the people who depend on the Mekong sub-region’s extensive river network for their livelihoods.

“Building hydro-dams usually costs far more than budgeted and the dams produce less electricity than the estimates,” says Malena Karlsson, environmental advisor to CEPA.

Construction on the Yali Falls dam began in 1993, and the final turbine was installed in December last year. It is the largest hydro-power dam in the region, with a budgeted cost of $1 billion and a generating capacity of 720 megawatts.

The World Bank lent the project its support in November 2001 when it announced a plan to fund a transmission line from Yali Falls to southern Vietnam.

When the original EIA was conducted with Swiss government funding by Swiss consulting firm Electrowatt Engineering, the study was limited to the effects only as far as eight kilometers from the dam site.

Baird maintains that the Swiss consultants and the Interim Mekong Committee (now the Mekong River Commission), which coordinated the EIA, must take responsibility for the inadequate assessment.

Had those organizations included the full environmental and economic impact of the dam, he says, the promise of cheap, clean electricity would have looked far less viable.

The report estimates that the loss of rice production caused by flooding has cost villagers $1.8 million over the past six years, while a further $1.8 million was lost in the form of damage to stored rice, boats, houses, drowned livestock and so on.

The dam could be better managed, says Baird, but not without economic costs to the dam operators. He maintains that flooding could not be avoided entirely, but if water were released in a way that mimics natural hydrological patterns that would “reduce aquatic impacts, including impacts on fish”.

“Management could be focused on more downstream flooding but that would cost money in terms of power generation in Vietnam and it seems unlikely that this would happen easily,” Baird says.

The villagers in Stung Treng are more categorical. They simply want the dam dismantled.

“We want to break the dam. The dam may have cost a billion dollars, but the lives of Cambodians are worth more than that, and how can they compensate for a life?” asked one woman from Buong village.

The villagers also did not view the gain in electricity as adequate compensation for the loss of their livelihoods.

“If we have electricity and we are still hungry, should we just look at the light? Will that fill our stomachs?” asked a woman from Khamphoun village. “We can survive without electricity but we can’t survive without rice.”

The report also takes a swipe at the MRC suggesting that the Yali Falls dam would be a perfect opportunity for the body to prove its usefulness.

“To date the MRC has failed to effectively coordinate with regard to downstream impacts,” the report states. “The MRC only began to consider the downstream impacts of the dam after press coverage regarding the plight of the impacted villagers in Ratanakkiri province was released in March 2000.”

The following month the MRC arranged a meeting between Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities to discuss dam management. The Vietnamese authorities agreed to release water only gradually and to notify Cambodia first.

Baird maintains that while the MRC established a dialogue committee to discuss Se San river issues, the discussions have not led to any benefits for the affected Cambodians.

The MRC was unable to respond to the allegations by press time.

If the Vietnamese authorities indeed alert their Cambodian counterparts about the release of water, it comes as a surprise to villagers in Stung Treng.

“No, we never hear any information [about the release of extra water into the Se San], ” says PFD’s Jordan. “That information never gets out into the village.”

After such a massive investment it seems unlikely that the Vietnamese will “break” the dam, as the villagers hope. Baird says that while some villages in Ratanakkiri have moved to upland areas, that is not a viable option for most.

“Many would like to be compensated for past impacts as well as for future impacts,” he says. “[However] some are wary of accepting compensation for fear that it implies they accept the dam, and in fact they do not.

“People would really like it to be decommissioned. However if this is not possible, then compensation along with mitigation measures to make the flow of the Se San river more like it was before would be appreciated.”


Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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