Taveng district, Ratanakkiri province – Tabok village is eerily empty, with only a few of its 76 families remaining after most of the Prov ethnic minority villagers fled their homes along the Sesan river for safer highland areas.
Villagers in Tabok, as in many of the approximately 60 villages along the Sesan in Ratanakkiri province, have struggled to readjust to changes in the river that they believe are caused by the construction of hydropower projects in Vietnam.
“The river is always changing,” said 42-year-old Siu Tim, one of the few villagers who has remained in Tabok.
“Some people left forever,” Siu Tim said. “People come back to the village for about one month around January, but then they go back to their farms.”
Villagers here blame the dams across the border for a range of problems including drownings, deaths from mysterious illnesses, low fish stocks, inability to pan for gold and loss of crops, livestock and boats.
“In the rainy season it floods all the rice fields,” Siu Tim said. “Now people cannot grow garden vegetables either. People get big stomachs from the dirty water.”
The largest hydropower project is the 720 megawatt Yali Falls Dam, located approximately 80 km inside the Vietnamese border, which was built between 1993 and 2001.
There are currently three more dams under construction downstream from Yali, the latest being the Sesan 4, located only 8 km from the Cambodian border and scheduled for completion in 2010, according to the NGO Sesan Protection Network.
One of the Mekong’s largest tributaries, the Sesan flows though Vietnam’s Central Highlands into Cambodia, crossing Ratanakkiri to Stung Treng province and converging with the Sre Pok river before feeding into the Mekong.
Independent studies warned of possible downstream impacts since early in the hydropower project when Vietnam was still working on the first of the dams.
An environmental and social impact analysis prepared for the Asian Development Bank in 2000 by independent consultants Worley Wtl Ltd stated that the Yali Falls dam “had already inflicted unacceptable levels of impact on downstream societies and inhabitants. It was found that the intended operations of the Yali will continue to have major downstream impacts.”
The Worley report also stated that international laws and treaties signed by both Cambodia and Vietnam require that the water be close to its natural level.
But, the Worley report concluded: “Impacts [of the dam] are difficult to monitor, mitigate, or compensate.”
“The trading of costs and benefits within the full cascade…is more or less impossible,” it added.
The ADB began requesting more environmental and social impact assessments after the Worley report, but other funding sources haven’t all followed that more cautious approach.
Vietnam continues to receive financing from Russian and Ukrainian institutions for the dams, many of them government-backed, according to the Sesan Protection Network and NGO International Rivers Network.
The Vietnamese Embassy did not respond to faxed questions and repeated phone calls for comment.
Though observers say the fluctuations in the Sesan have become less dramatic since 2002, Cambodia National Mekong Committee Deputy Secretary General Pich Dun said the river still goes up and down as much as a meter or a meter-and-a-half daily in Ratanakkiri.
Tabok villagers fled across the river and upland in recent years as their subsistence economy collapsed and eight people died from a previously unknown disease that struck after surges in the water level.
“My first wife died with the same stomach problem,” Siu Tim said. “We never had this problem before the dam. It happens after the flooding.”
“Pigs drank the water and then died almost immediately, a few hours later. In Seng Sai village buffaloes died, and I saw them floating in the river,” he added.
Siu Tim said he now barely scrapes by because fish are scarce and attempts to grow food are flooded or washed away.
Of course, the river has always both given and taken away, and environmental activists acknowledge that it is difficult to prove many of the villagers’ accusations that the dams are responsible for their hardships.
The river has risen and fallen, crops have flourished and failed and villagers have lived and died along the Sesan since long before Vietnam began building the first of the four dams.
Villagers and observers appear to have arrived at a consensus on some issues: The water is murkier and less predictable, rising when there is no rain, and fish are not as plentiful as they once were.
Further confusing the issue, the dams have taken on almost mythic proportions in village culture and are blamed for specific incidents, many of which are tied to the dams in ways that seem tenuous.
Four ethnic Lao villagers were riding in a motorized wooden longboat a few kilometers from their Veun Sai district homes when a massive tree fell, smashing into their vessel around 6 pm on Aug 9.
Theang Heang, 25, was killed and two men were severely injured in the accident, which villagers blamed on riverbank erosion caused by flooding from dam water releases.
“The rice paddies were flooded, so we went hunting,” said the boat’s driver, An Sorn, 37, who was still immobilized at home with a broken left leg on Sept 15.
“I didn’t see the tree coming,” An Sorn said. “I couldn’t swim with my broken leg, so I just clung to the tree, dragged myself to the riverbank and fell unconscious.”
The three villages of Hat Pok commune have also suffered other losses. More than 60 hectares of rice and other crops were flooded in 2005 alone, commune chief Khoun Non said.
“For generations we could farm along the river, but recently the water rises too fast,” he said. “This year crops were swept away.”
“Even people’s lowland paddy fields were flooded, because the water goes ways it never went before,” he added.
There are a few local wells here to provide safer water than that which comes from the river, but they are insufficient for the almost 1,300 commune residents, Khoun Non said.
“For generations we didn’t have these problems. People always swam in the river,” he said. “In the dry season the water used to be clear. We could drink it. But now it is always dirty.”
Sitting on the thin slat floor of the Prov communal meeting house, Sa Nao, 40, described drastic changes to her life and those of the 29 families in Taveng district’s Chan village.
She had buried her husband 12 days before. Njret Giang, who was in his late 50s, died after suffering a stomach ailment that spread throughout his body, Sa Nao said.
The couple had planned to go to a hospital, but they feared the river journey from their remote village in the district’s Taveng Leur commune.
“When the water is rising so fast it is dangerous, so we decided not to go,” she said.
It is difficult to quantify the damage allegedly caused by the dams, but government agencies, the Mekong River Commission, local environmentalists and independent consultants have arrived at some estimates.
A report prepared by the Ratanakkiri provincial Fisheries Office and the NGO Non-Timber Forest Products in 2000 counted 952 deaths that villagers attributed to the decline of water quality since the Yali Falls dam was built.
The report also noted cultural impacts among the mostly animistic minorities along the Sesan. Many villagers interpreted the river’s changes as signs of spirits’ anger at them, some even sacrificing animals when the water rose unexpectedly, according to the study.
Villagers may have contracted illnesses directly from the water, and some may have been weakened by poor quality water and so become more susceptible to other diseases, the report stated.
The report, however, lacked laboratory analysis to back up any of its claims, and recent water analysis seems to indicate no specific water quality problems.
“Cambodia and Vietnam have conducted some water sampling on the river,” Mekong River Commission Senior Environmental Specialist Ian Campbell wrote in an e-mail message. “Water level fluctuations are clearly a problem for the people downstream, but we found no evidence to support the contention that there is a water quality problem,” Campbell said.
Water in reservoirs sometimes develops low oxygen levels and high levels of dissolved iron and manganese, but those problems occur immediately downstream of dams’ reservoirs and shouldn’t extend beyond one or two kilometers, Campbell added. “We found no evidence even of these problems by the time the water reaches the Cambodian border.”
He noted, however, that water fluctuations can cause other water quality issues.
“It is possible that rapid rises in water levels are flushing out dead animals or waste water near villages and causing problems downstream, but our data did not indicate high bacterial levels in the water.”
A 2001 report prepared by independent consultant Bruce McKenney for Oxfam America estimated that dam effects had reduced villagers’ livelihoods in four Ratanakkiri districts along the Sesan by more than half in 1999.
The study included estimated losses of rice and vegetable farming, fishing, gold panning, equipment, livestock and goods.
“The great irony here is that these villages along the Sesan in Ratanakkiri are affected by a hydropower development, and they don’t even have electricity,” said Oxfam American Program Officer Peter Chaudhry.
That irony is not lost on locals: Pich Dun said that cheap or free electricity had been suggested as one potential way to repay villagers’ recent losses.
The Sesan Protection Network are calling for major changes to remedy problems on the Sesan: The restoration of the river’s natural flow, compensation for villagers’ losses and the decommissioning of existing dams and end to new hydropower projects.
Pich Dun said that Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai has responded to Cambodian appeals with five resolutions on the gradual variation of water releases and exchange of information in both normal and emergency situations relating to the dams.
Vietnam has also agreed to build another reservoir to regulate water flows downstream of the dam, 5 or 6 km from the Cambodian border, to be completed in 2007, Pich Dun said.
Vietnamese authorities are already sending notice of impending reservoir releases, but local authorities complain that it is often too little too late. Even when Vietnam gives what seems to be enough time ahead of a release, Cambodian authorities often fail to get warnings out to remote villages.
“One of the demands from villagers was to be notified directly by the dam operators, but I don’t know how practical that would be,” Chaudhry said.
The Vietnamese send the Cambodia National Mekong Committee monthly notices 10 days in advance of water releases detailing how much water should be expected, Pich Dun said. “When we receive this information we immediately send a fax to Ratanakkiri, and in the meantime we also send a hard copy by post,” he said.
But the warnings often arrive to the province late, Ratanakkiri Hydrology and Meteorology Bureau Chief Khim Sokhan said.
Locals said they rarely or never receive warnings.
Veun Sai district Governor Pheng Bunvatt explained that he simply monitors the water himself, pointing to the measuring sticks poking up from the water behind his riverside home.
“I normally inform the commune councils of rising water myself, without any provincial notification, when it reaches 8.5 meters,” he said.
Hat Pok commune chief Khoun Non said that authorities sometimes warn him by walkie-talkie of impending floods from rain, but he has never been told to expect a dam release.
“We need to know one or two weeks beforehand,” he said. “We never received any warnings about water releases since the dam was built.”