SESAN district, Stung Treng province – Srekor village is burning.
On the north bank of the Srepok River, trash fires make ashes of what the families have left behind. They had fled before the rising waters promised by the Lower Sesan II dam, which closed its first floodgate for testing on Saturday morning after three contentious years of construction. Plumes of thick white smoke drift through the trees into an overcast sky.
Men working for business tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group are tearing down the homes and hauling away the wood. In a joint venture with China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, the Cambodian conglomerate is building what, at more than $800 million and 400 megawatts, will be the country’s largest hydropower dam by far when it is fully up and running. Straddling the Sesan River just below where it meets the Srepok, the first of its eight turbines is set to start churning out power on September 25.
But on the opposite bank of the Srepok, in the other half of Srekor village, some families are waiting for the flood.
With testing now underway, the government says the village will soon be underwater. Most of the 5,000-odd people living on the 36,000 hectares the dam will soon turn into a giant reservoir have, reluctantly, moved to resettlement sites the companies have set up for them and taken up their offer of new homes and farms.
But the holdouts of Srekor, about 120 farming and fishing families spread out along the tall, muddy banks of the Srepok, are refusing to budge.
Hours after the first of 10 floodgates clamped shut on Saturday a few kilometers downriver, they were still skeptical that the river would ever reach their doors. A heavy dose of mistrust plays a part.
“The villagers don’t believe the government,” said Hem Khat, staring out at the river from underneath his stilt house. “Sometimes the things they say are not true.”
Mr. Khat, 60, said the government told the villagers before construction began in 2014 that their homes would be safe, that they would never have to leave. They were told later that they would have to go.
Like most of the holdouts, Mr. Khat wants to “wait and see.” He has his doubts that the village will flood, but he hasn’t ruled it out.
Just in case, some of the families have been making plans.
On a slight hill a kilometer or two from the village, on either side of the dirt road running in and out, a few dozen bed frames lie empty and naked beneath scruffy pitched tarpaulins—like a refugee camp waiting for an emergency.
The holdouts prefer to believe what they see.
“If the village floods, we will move to the safety hill,” said Dam Morn, 47, in an excited, raspy voice. “I’m worried about a flood, but let’s see. I didn’t go farming today so I could stay home and watch the water.”
The river had yet to rise perceptibly by Saturday afternoon. But the village is already being choked off.
Along the road running away from the river, the government began dismantling a bridge that morning, cutting off the quickest route the families had to the provincial capital of Stung Treng City, about 70 km away.
Police were guarding the dirt road that leads to it from National Road 78, turning back anyone who did not live nearby. The only ways in or out of the village now are a ferry ride across the river before a long and bumpy road manned by soldiers and company guards to the dam and across the river again, or an even longer route that loops into Ratanakkiri province—some 20 km in the opposite direction—and doubles back to Stung Treng.
The villagers had protested twice before when authorities came to tear down the bridge, which the reservoir is also expected to flood, but finally relented.
“They did not dare to protest because a few days before, the authorities threatened to arrest people if they did,” Mr. Morn said. “It’s not fair because they always threaten to arrest people before they do something.”
He said authorities had also come that morning to start dismantling the local schoolhouse, but the villagers convinced them to leave.
The companies have built three resettlement sites for the families who will have to move to make way for the reservoir. The government says more than 700 of them have already moved in and that more keep coming by the day.
In Srekor, a husband and wife and their two young boys had a bright red mattress doubled over on the back of their tractor along with a few racks and baskets, and made a final stop at a small shop for gas and a few last-minute supplies. A neighbor said the family had agreed to move to one of the resettlement sites a few days ago and was just leaving.
But those holding out fear that leaving the village will mean giving up the only way they know to make a living—farming rice in the wet season and fishing the river when the rains stop.
Mr. Khat said the resettlement sites are too far from the river to make fishing practical, which means he’ll have to farm in the dry season too. But the new farms aren’t irrigated and also sit far from the river, so he can’t imagine how he would manage. Here, in Srekor, he can cast his net into the river and get by.
But even that is getting harder, and could get harder still.
A 2012 study of planned hydropower projects across the Mekong River Basin by researchers from Princeton University and Cambodia’s own Fisheries Administration, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., warned of dire consequences. It concluded that the Lower Sesan II alone, near the confluence of two main tributaries of the Mekong, could cut fish stocks by 9.3 percent basin-wide and impact the food supply of millions of people.
Mr. Khat has already seen his catch fall steadily for the past three years, since work on the Lower Sesan II began.
“It was enough to support the family,” he said. “Before the dam we could make money from fishing; now it is difficult because there are not many fish left…. Two years ago there were still some left. Now, nothing.”
He said the resettlement sites also lack enough water for all of life’s other basic needs.
“They give you a small can, about 10 liters a day. How can you use it?” he said. “Here it’s easy to get water from the river.”
So while the villagers of Srekor keep a wary eye on the water, they are getting along with daily life.
Ly Hen, 28, was busy fixing a loose tire on the bed of a beat-up truck outside his house.
He said he had no interest in the new homes on offer, or the few thousand dollars the families could opt for instead. Like his neighbors, Mr. Hen said the river was his life.
“The company has offered compensation, but the compensation is not enough,” he said. “We can’t use that money to make a better life for our families. If we stay here we can make money from farming and fishing. The company brings water from the river [to the resettlement sites], but we have to pay.”
“I’m not happy about the dam, but I don’t know what to say because this is the development of the government,” he said.
The government says the country needs the dam to help bring down some of the highest electricity prices in the region and gain some independence over its power supply from neighbors Laos and Vietnam. It says the families moving into the resettlement sites, many of whom have been living off the grid, will get a taste of it too, along with new clinics and roads.
The families seem unimpressed. In last month’s nationwide commune elections, Srekor was the only one the ruling CPP could not win across all of Stung Treng.
Mr. Morn said he was happy with the solar power he draws on now and worries, if he moves, about affording the electricity if he can’t farm and fish the way he does now.
“The power is important,” he said. “But for me, if we don’t have it, it’s OK because you need money to pay for electricity.”
Men Kong, spokesman for the provincial government, denied that the dam’s impacts on fish stocks would be anywhere near as severe as the 2012 study warned.
“We have studied it and we did not find that the dam will reduce fish catch like the NGO accuses,” he said, assuming the study was the work of a non-government organization. “We think the dam will have some effect, but the Environment Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry already have plans to create waterways for the fish.”
Mr. Kong also denied that any of the families the dam is forcing to move were ever told they could stay, or that families that have moved are being charged for water.
But he conceded that the resettlement sites were short on water and said the company would be digging more wells, though he could not say when. He also said that families worried about leaving the river could just wait for the waters to come to them at the resettlement sites as the reservoir fills in.
“I recognize that people will face a water shortage in the dry season because the relocation sites are quite far from the river. But after the dam closes the water will get close to the sites, so the people will be able to take the water and use it,” he said.
As for the Srepok River, Mr. Kong said on Sunday that the water should reach the foot of Srekor village in about three more days and that a fleet of boats and trucks were ready to help evacuate anyone left. He said the same was true for another 60 or so families refusing to leave the village of Kbal Romeas along the Sesan.
The holdouts of Srekor say they are sticking to their plan and will head to their “safety hill” if and when the waters do come. They know they can’t settle on the hill for long, but they aren’t yet ready to think about what comes next.
“We will decide later,” said Mr. Hen, brushing the thought away. “But not now, because now the village is not flooded.”