January 23, 2003
Together with activists, villagers want a stop to dam-building in Vietnam until a public hearing is held to discuss the impacts of these projects. More than six years after flash floods first hit this and other villages in northeastern Cambodia, drowning people and sweeping away homes and livelihoods, families living along the Sesan River still live in fear of the ill effects flowing from a dam across the border in Vietnam.
But unlike in 1996 when they were caught unaware, villagers here in the northeastern province of Ratanakiri are more vigilant in facing the troubles they attribute to the Yali
Falls Dam in Vietnam, including erratic releases of water that caused flash floods when the dam was being built, followed by fluctuations in the river’s flow after it became fully operational in 2001.
This time, they are holding community meetings and joining protests to speak out against plans by Vietnam to build more dams on the Sesan River, one of the largest tributaries of
the Mekong River that reaches Cambodia after flowing through Vietnam.
After completing the Yali Falls Dam, located 70 km upstream from the Cambodia-Vietnam border, Vietnam reportedly started work in June on the 273 million dollar Sesan 3 Dam project, 20 km downstream from Yali Falls. It also has plans to construct the 320-mw Sesan 4 Dam in 2004.
“All river users in this region have rights, not just hydro-developers,” argues Kim Sangha, coordinator of the Sesan River Protection Network. “Those rights must be enshrined in a clear set of rules and procedures for dam building which take local people into account.”
The roots of the villagers’ anger run deep.
Villagers in Ratanakiri, like those in neighboring Stung Treng Province to the west, recall how in 1996 an elderly woman was swept away by gushing water from the Sesan. Later
that year, a three-year-old girl drowned when the river suddenly swelled.
Villagers and activists blame those flash floods on the large amounts of water discharged during the construction of the Yali Falls’ 720 mw hydroelectric dam in Vietnam, and
also from its 64-km reservoir.
Since 1996, they said, water from the dam upstream caused the Sesan River in Ratanakiri to swell, inundating ricefields, washing away farms and property, and leaving thousands of people homeless.
“My two hectares of rice paddies were rotten, fishing nets, over ten chickens, one boat and vegetables were ruined by irregular water levels caused by the dam releases,” 52-year-old Ha Si Nan from Kachhorn Village says of her experience in 2001.
Reports from local and international NGOs say at least 36 people have drowned due to erratic releases of water from the Yali Dam, and some 50,000 Cambodian villagers affected.
Higher-than-normal floods and lower-than-normal dry season flows have confused and worried locals and disrupted the river’s ecology.
“When the Yali Falls Dam is closed, the water in Sesan downstream dries up. I’m still worried about fish species, which might disappear from the river one day,” explains Dam
Chanty from the NGO Non-Timbre Forest Products Project.
Villagers like Thorng Penh are surprised that flooding occurs during the dry and rainy seasons. “I was born here and have lived here for over 50 years but I have never seen
such strange flooding like this,” she says. In 2001, “four Kheng minorities tried to cross the river, but their boat overturned and all of them died as water rose quickly.”
One villager recalls that the Sesan used to be a source of drinking water, but now the water is murky. Drinking it causes pains in the throat, chest and stomach. Bathing in
the river causes skin rashes and sores.
Some Cambodian authorities appear to downplay the dam’s impact. As Muong Poy, Ratanakiri’s co-governor, puts it, “The situation [involving] water releases from the Yali
Falls Dam is better [now] than in 1996 and 1997, and the problem it causes among the people downstream in Cambodia is not as serious now.”
Chan Bun Thoeun, deputy director of Ratanakiri Service for Water Resources and Meteorology, adds, “Flooding disasters don’t occur any more and water quality is not also bad.
Vietnamese use proper technical equipment at the time of releasing water.”
But these do little to reassure angry Cambodian villagers, especially with plans for other Vietnamese dams along the Sesan.
“One dam has caused enough problems. I have lost my rice fields, animals and there are less fish to catch in the river. Do they want us all to die?” news reports quote one villager from Stung Treng as saying.
Together with activists, villagers want a stop to dam-building in Vietnam until a public hearing is held to discuss the impacts of these projects.
“The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and its sponsors should take immediate steps to ensure that Vietnam ceases all dam operations and construction on the Sesan until a mutually acceptable operating regime and compensation for downstream communities is negotiated with Cambodia,” Gr√°inne Ryder of the Canada-based foreign aid watchdog Probe International said in a statement in November.
Critics say the Phnom-Penh based MRC, composed of the lower Mekong countries of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, failed to coordinate members’ actions that could have prevented destruction and death in northeastern Cambodia.
Among others, MRC maintains that at the time of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the Yali project in the early nineties, Cambodia was still embroiled in internal
conflict and was unsafe to visit. The EIA for the Yali Falls Dam, conducted by the Swiss company Electrowatt Engineering, covered an area only eight kilometers downstream from the dam.
“These critical errors on the part of the dam builders and their financiers have made it difficult for us to determine the exact extent of the impact of the Yali Falls Dam in Stung Treng Province, just as it was difficult to do in Ratanakiri,” said a Cambodian expert.
MRC chief Joern Kristensen has said that the commission helped steer the creation of a Vietnam-Cambodia panel to discuss “the environment impact, management, adverse
effects, the [Yali] dam’s water release and future construction.”
“MRC cannot dictate the direction or decisions that the committee makes. That is the responsibility of the two governments concerned,” Kristensen wrote to a Cambodian
newspaper last year.
Activists say dialogue between governments and affected communities in the future can start from Hanoi’s recognition of the impact of the Yali project across the border.
“I would like the Cambodian government to reach an accord with the Vietnamese government [whereby] Vietnam would agree and accept that the water impact is really caused by the Yali Falls Dam,” says Kim Sangha, the activist.
Villagers on the Vietnamese side have not been spared the effects of the Yali Falls Dam project – and most probably future projects too. Vietnamese affected by flooding have
been resettled, says the Centre for Natural Resources and Environment Studies, a Vietnamese research organization.
It said the resettlement and compensation varies, with ethnic minorities receiving less assistance than Kinh (Vietnamese) people. About 40 percent of the 6,800 people relocated because of the dam are Kinh.
The vice chairman of Kroong commune in Vietnam’s Gia Lai Province says that on average, each household received 60,000 to 70,000 Vietnamese dong (US $ 4.00-5.00) for crops
and fishpond losses. In other communes, each Kinh household received up to 20 million dong (US $1,380).
Uneven distribution of cash and other provisions were reported, but as one ethnic villager remarks: “We take what they give us.”
“We like the new house, although it is small. But we are all hungry because there is no land left for us to cultivate to feed the family,” says another Vietnamese villager.
Pouv Savuth wrote this article under the Inter Press Service media fellowship program “Our Mekong: A Vision amid Globalization.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Inter Press Service (IPS).
Categories: Mekong Utility Watch