banlung, Ratanakkiri – Life has never been easy here in the far northeast of Cambodia, where people scrape by farming and fishing, living at nature’s whim.
But before, at least, life was more predictable.
When it rained, the river ran high. When there was no rain, the water was low in the Se San, which cuts through Ratanakkiri on its way to joining the Mekong.
Four years ago, though, the river turned crazy and dangerous and life along the Se San hasn’t been the same since.
At least two dozen people and thousands of farm animals have drowned, according to a new report by the Ratanakkiri provincial fisheries office and the Non-Timber Forest Products Project. Homes and crops have been destroyed and people live in fear that a wall of water will swoosh down the river and sweep away their children.
The culprit, villagers say, is the Yali Falls Dam, far up the river in the central highlands of Vietnam.
Yali Falls is the largest hydropower project in the lower Mekong basin. When it is completed next year, the $1 billion dam 70 km upstream from the Cambodian border will generate 720 megawatts of electricity—some six times the total capacity of the power plants currently operating in all of Cambodia.
But downriver in Ratanakkiri, the story is not one of progress and possibility. Villagers here speak of frustration and desperation.
“Our crops are gone,” said Bou Orn at a meeting here last week with provincial authorities to discuss the flooding problem. “We would like to call on the government to help make the river return to its natural flow. Please have mercy on us.”
The issue has been a point of tension between Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodian government officials say they are not notified when water will be released from the giant reservoir behind the dam. Vietnamese officials say they have done their part by sending warnings. And Cambodia, they say, has overstated damage caused by the dam.
The Se San flooding also highlights the problem of managing water resources shared by countries, a conflict likely to increase in the future. What is good for one country is not always good for other countries in a region. And as populations increase, so do demands on water resources.
The Mekong River Commission, which mediates disputes over use of water resources in the Mekong basin, sent a group to Ratanakkiri in March to investigate the dam’s effects on riverside villages. The MRC then brought the two sides together in April, and they agreed that Vietnam would notify Cambodian officials and villagers when water is to be released. Also, the water would be released gradually, not abruptly.
“We’ve already helped them settle this issue,” an MRC official in Phnom Penh said this week, adding that there have been no complaints about the dam since the last major flooding in March.
“The problem is over,” said Chu Dong Loc, a spokesman at the Vietnamese embassy. “The two sides have solved it.”
While the issue has been settled on paper, people in Ratanakkiri say they have been left out and fear problems will continue.
“Neighboring countries…benefit from hydropower dams, but Cambodia doesn’t,” Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said at the meeting with villagers. “Why has Cambodia been so unfortunate?”
The new report estimated the dam is affecting 20,000 people in 3,500 families who live along the Se San in Cambodia.
Vietnamese officials were invited to the Ratanakkiri meeting last week, but did not attend.
That disappointed the villagers. Veng Khuon wanted to tell them about the night in March when he woke in a panic. The voices came, screaming for help. Already, as the 88-year-old fisherman slept, his two cows and two boats had been washed down the river.
“I was terrified when I looked out of my house to see the water rising higher and hear my neighbor’s cries,” he said.
Five houses in the village collapsed, animals were washed away and when the water receded several days later, crops along the riverbank had been ruined.
“I have never seen such flooding in my life,” he said.
The MRC official said the flooding occurred when the Vietnamese tested the spillway, sending massive amounts of water down the river. “When they test it, they have problems,” he said.
He said releasing the water gradually will help fix the problem.
Since the end of April, water has been running through one of the dam’s four turbines, the MRC official said, meaning the water fluctuations are not as big. “Now the river is uniform because it’s running all the time,” he said. “The water is not stop and go, stop and go.”
Another dam has been proposed on the Se San river, 20 km closer to Cambodia. But because this dam will not have a reservoir, and no stored-up water to release, it will not pose flooding problems, the MRC official said.
The report by the Ratanakkiri fisheries office and the Non-Timber Forest Products Project, however, disagrees, saying the dam should not be built and international financiers such as the Asian Development Bank should not support dams that could affect indigenous people and the environment.
The ADB has proposed conducting an environmental assessment of the effects the dam would have downstream. This study would include Yali Falls dam.
Construction of Yali Falls dam began in 1993. Trouble for villagers in Ratanakkiri started in 1996 when water was released from the dam’s 65-square-km reservoir, sending a surge of water downriver into Cambodia and flooding several villages.
Floods are common where rivers rise during the rainy season. But this flood, villagers said, happened faster, lasted longer and caused more damage than any flood they could remember.
The flooding continued sporadically over the next four years. It used to be that when the sky upstream was dark, villagers knew rain was coming and the river would rise. But recently, the sky upstream can be clear and a torrent of water will swoosh down the river, water spilling into the villages, ruining crops and washing away belongings.
In April and May, the fisheries office in Ratanakkiri and the Non-Timber Forest Products Project conducted a survey in several villages along the river, funded by Oxfam America, asking residents how the dam affects their lives.
Villagers told interviewers at least 32 people have drowned since 1996. While it is not surprising that people who live along rivers sometimes drown, villagers have blamed all the deaths on water releases from the dam.
In Chan Village, a 3-year-old girl and her mother were washing clothes in the river when a surge of water swept the girl away. In another incident, two boys drowned when fast-moving water flipped their boat at night.
Most recently, three fisherman sleeping in their boats drowned in March when water released from the dam coursed down the river. Now, even during the dry season, many villagers say they are afraid to cross the river, for fear the water will rise suddenly and sweep them into the current.
The flooding also has led to serious financial hardships for families along the Se San. Hundreds of buffaloes, cows, pigs, ducks and chickens have drowned in recent years, their deaths blamed on fluctuations in the river level. Villagers also have lost hundreds of boats, thousands of nets and other fishing equipment since the Se San problems began. The villagers are asking the Vietnamese government to compensate them for lost livestock and equipment.
Villagers say the water from the dam also carries disease, causing many illnesses and even deaths.
“I am very angry,” one woman told the interviewers. “I want to see the ones who made the dam. I will tell them we are suffering. I want to break the dam.”