Mekong Utility Watch

Dam that claims lives is illegal, says new report

November 22, 2005

Villagers appeal to the Cambodian government as Mekong Agreement fails to protect them.

Australian Mekong Resource Centre, Oxfam Mekong Initiative, NGO Forum on Cambodia, NTFP/Sesan Project Ratanakiri province, Cambodia

Press conference 5.30 pm, Wednesday 27 November at Mi Casa Hotel, Phnom Penh

Villagers appeal to the Cambodian government as Mekong Agreement fails to protect them.

Illegal dam construction and operation in Vietnam has led to the death of up to 39 Cambodians, and threatens the livelihoods and human rights of thousands more, according to a study released in Phnom Penh this week.

Conducted by human rights lawyer Michael Lerner, the study was prompted by reports of drownings and damaging floods along the Sesan River during and after the construction of the Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam, 80 kilometres upstream of the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

“Vietnam built and has operated the Yali Falls Dam in ways that violate international law,” says Lerner. “The Mekong River Commission and the Mekong Agreement were meant to guard against these abuses, but they have failed to protect the Cambodians.”

The study will be released at the National Sesan Workshop, in which affected villagers will make known their frustration at the apparent lack of concern by the MRC as they continue to face the threat of flooding and loss of livelihood from the river that was once their lifeline.

Says Kim Sangha, Sesan River Protection Network: “We aim to send a strong message to the MRC and its member countries that all river users in this region have rights, not just hydro developers, and that those rights must be enshrined in a clear set of rules and procedures for dam building, which takes local people into account.”

Based on Lerner’s investigation, both Cambodian and international NGOs intend to pressure the MRC and other actors to remedy the problems faced by Sesan villagers in accordance with international law.

“The MRC and its international 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,” says Grainne Ryder of the foreign aid watchdog, Canada’s Probe International.

The workshop will provide a forum for villagers and stakeholders to discuss the impacts of not only Yali, but of new dams as well. In June 2002, Vietnam announced that it had started construction on Sesan 3, located 20km downstream from Yali Falls. Vietnam has also approved initial plans for more dams, including the Sesan 3A last month. Continues/ Neither Yali nor the new dams are being built in compliance with international law, according to Lerner’s study. For example, environmental impact assessments, or EIAs, for the dams have been insufficient or non-existent.

“For Yali, Switzerland gave over a million dollars for Swiss consultants to look at the impacts of the dam – but they never considered the impact on the villagers living just a little further downstream. Would they do the same in Switzerland?” says Lerner. “For Sesan 3, the construction has started before the EIA has been even agreed to, let alone carried out. These practices violate obligations in the Mekong agreement and elsewhere in international law.”

The Mekong River Commission was created by the Mekong agreement, which was signed by Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand in

1995. The agreement is meant to balance the right of any one state to develop the river and its tributaries for hydropower and flood control, with the rights of all riparian states to be free of the harmful effects arising from such development.

In particular, Lerner notes, the agreement was supposed to empower the Mekong River Commission to create rules regulating development of the river, and to resolve disputes in the event that one member state’s use of the Mekong or its tributaries causes harm to another member state.

A major problem, however, is the Mekong River Commission itself. Seven years after the agreement was signed, the Commission has yet to agree on rules to regulate dam-building in the four lower Mekong states. The MRC does not expect to finalize rules and procedures governing use of the Mekong and tributaries until

2004. Meanwhile, Vietnam is planning a “cascade of dams” that may lead to further impacts on the Sesan in Cambodia.

“This is unacceptable,” says Tep Bunnarith, Director of CEPA. “How long will it take for the MRC to face up to its obligations? What is the purpose of the MRC if they can’t stick by their rules?”

Affected villagers will provide a statement at the press conference demanding the Cambodian Government and the MRC face up to their responsibilities. Copies of Michael Lerner’s report will also be available at the press conference.


For further information, CONTACT:

Michael Lerner, Researcher/Lawyer, Governance and Water Resources: 012-736 812; Tep Bunnarith, Director of CEPA: 023 369 179;

Kim Sangha, Sesan Protection Network: Ea Sophy, NGO Forum on Cambodia: 023 986 269;

Grainne Ryder, Probe International: 023 210 375;

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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