sesan district, Stung Treng province – The site of the planned Lower Sesan 2 Dam is largely untouched by development. More than 100-meters wide, the Sesan River runs quietly along the bamboo and jungle covered riverbanks here.
But this could all change, and possibly within months, when work on the 75-meter high, $816 million Sesan dam begins. The multi-million dollar hydropower project requires the resettlement of more than 1,000 families from seven villages upstream of the dam and the clearing of the construction area, company officials from Electricite du Vietnam, the developer of the 400-megawatt hydropower project, said Thursday.
If the project goes ahead, the dam, which will be located on the Sesan River about 25 km from Stung Treng town and a kilometer downstream from where the Sesan and Srepok rivers converge, will raise water levels and inundate approximately 30,000 hectares of land along the two rivers which is mostly forested land except for around 12,000 hectares of farmland, according to an environment impact assessment of the project.
An official with EVN, who asked not to be named, said by telephone from Vietnam that Cambodia’s Finance Ministry and the government’s Inter-ministerial Resettlement Committee had accepted a resettlement action plan drafted by Power Engineering Consulting Company 1, the project’s engineering consultant, and that EVN was now waiting approval from the government to begin the project.
“We have submitted all documents on resettlement to the government and they issued a letter that agreed with the content of our resettlement action plan. We are now waiting for final government approval,” the EVN official said.
“I hope they agree soon, I expect a decision within two months,” the official said, adding, “Whenever the approval comes work will start immediately.”
“All preparations are finished and we can start with resettlement and site vacation,” he added.
However Chhorn Sopheap, director of the government’s resettlement committee, said on Friday that he had not yet seen any approval documents and the government and EVN are still in discussion about the resettlement operation.
“There will remain a very long time before resettlement [starts],” Mr Sopheap said, adding, that EVN and the government “are now interacting with each other,” as project documents needed to be adapted.
Nevertheless Taing Sophanara from Key Consultants Cambodia, the agency selected by PECC 1 to prepare the environmental impact assessment for the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, said he had also been informed that the government had approved PECC 1’s resettlement plan.
In March, hundreds of Vietnamese workers from EVN were seen drilling for geological samples at the proposed dam site in Phluk commune. The project will require around 3,000 workers who will live at the site for around four years to build the dam. The electricity generated by the hydropower installation will go to Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Kratie province, while the remaining power will be exported to Vietnam, according to the EIA report.
A study by the Rivers Coalition of Cambodia, which was publicly unveiled in Ratanakkiri province by NGO Forum on Wednesday, found that none of the residents in seven villages in Srekor, Talat and Kbal Romea communes and four other villages both up- and downriver agreed with the project due to the impact on their lives.
Civil society groups are “seriously concerned” about the livelihoods of the affected communities and public consultations are required to make sure the people affected by the dam are protected, said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum.
NGO Forum had repeatedly asked the government for information on the project, but these requests had gone unanswered and only in June had they been given access to a draft EIA, he said.
More and broader public consultation is needed, Mr Sam Ath said, as the local consultancy KCC has interviewed people only in the planned dam reservoir area without talking to any of the tens of thousands of villagers living further up- and downstream of the dam. These communities, he said, would be affected by the loss of fishing opportunities, reduced water quality, which could lead to water-borne diseases, and the impact of an influx of migrant workers into the area, NGO Forum said.
NGO Forum also pointed to a pre-feasibility study conducted by the Asian Development Bank in 1999 that found the Lower Sesan 2 Dam to be unattractive for investment due to its marginal financial viability and the extremely heavy environmental and social impacts of the dam.
According to Mr Sam Ath, the proposed relocation site for the villagers, who mostly rely on fishing, is far from the river, is characterized by poor quality agricultural land and is partially located in areas of economic land concessions and important wildlife habitats. Compensation for their loss of agricultural land, houses and orchards proposed in the EIA is inadequate and no regulatory framework is in place to guarantee the compensation rights of displaced villagers, he added.
Mr Sam Ath called on the government to have the EIA redone according to the standards of “international best practices for dam development.”
“The NGO community is happy to cooperate with the government and work on the resettlement plans, but without information we cannot do anything,” he said.
Prach Sun, secretary of state for the Ministry of Environment, said on Thursday that the EIA presented in June had not yet been approved as more research was needed in particular on the dam’s impact on fish stocks.
“As of yet, there is no approval on the EIA report because it needs to be revised again,” Mr Sun said.
Mr Sophanara from KCC said that resettlement issues were the responsibility of PECC 1 and his firm had only contributed a small part to the resettlement studies, adding NGO Forum’s criticism was based on a draft EIA from late 2008, which was now out of date.
“NGO Forum lacks a lot of information. Next month we will complete the EIA. If they see it, they will see we added many things. They don’t need to worry,” he said.
But many people are worried, including the residents of Kbal Romea, an ethnic Banong village located in the planned dam reservoir. Villagers said on Wednesday that they are deeply concerned about their futures and the proposed compensation for their dislocation.
Village chief Chhoeung Kear, 39, said the 120 Banong families living in large wooden houses on stilts located on the banks of the Srepok River will lose 500 hectares of land, which consists mostly of fertile green rice fields east of the village.
“We have no idea what to DO? If we do not move, the area will still flood…and we can not stop the government [project],” Mr Kear said, adding that officials had come by to interview and inform the villagers about the dam in 2007 and 2008, but villagers had not been consulted about any resettlement plans.
“They don’t tell villagers about the resettlement plans and compensation, they just showed us the new site. It is full of forest and it is too small. How can we live there?” Mr Kear said, adding that the relocation site would be on the other side of the river seven kilometer from Kbal Romea.
Loy Sophat, Stung Treng provincial governor, said EVN had chosen a good relocation site for the people and that it would have a water pump system, productive farmland and road access.
The new land will be “five times better” than the current village lands, the governor said, adding that he expected construction of the dam to start in early 2010, after resettlement and compensation issues were resolved.
Keo Mith, chief of Kbal Romea village’s committee for water resources, said: “All the villagers don’t want to move, but we have no choice, we live under the government.”
“We want to get good compensation for our orchards, land, school and the loss of our spirit forest,” Mr Mith said, adding, “The new village area is far from here and we don’t know if there will be fish there, we are all fishermen.”
“We are concerned about the future of our children, we don’t know about their resources for living,” he added.
Village elder Nhoy Sro, 88, raised another compensation issue when asked about the resettlement plans, and one particular to the animistic practices of the area’s ethnic minorities.
“When we move to a new place, we have to hold many ceremonies and make many sacrifices [of animals to the spirits], it will cost a lot of money,” Mr Sro said.
“I don’t have this money and the government doesn’t pay for that.”