Villagers living along the Se San River, a tributary of the Mekong, are waiting to see how Phnom Penh will respond to their protests against controversial hydroelectric dams on Vietnam’s section of the river, villagers and environmentalists say.
As many as 50,000 villagers in Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces have had their fisheries and farms threatened by irregular water levels, and many have been sickened by contaminated water since the construction of the $1 billion Yali Falls dam, experts have said.
And Vietnam has just recently announced plans to build its Se San 3 dam, only 30 km from the Cambodian border, according to Hou Taing Eng, general secretary of the government’s National Mekong River Committee.
“We are demanding Vietnam provide more information and documents about this. Right now, the Se San River Committee [consisting of Cambodian and Vietnamese officials] is still studying this case, including environmental impact assessment,” Hou Taing Eng said.
Dam Chanthy grew up along the Se San in Ratanakkiri’s Andong Meas district and today works for the Se San River Protection Network. She said the river’s level varies so drastically now that a person sometimes can wade across it, a feat she said was impossible in her childhood.
“We want the Se San River to return to its original state so we can continue to live on farming and fishing,” she said.
Dam Chanthy said the government appears to sympathize with the people’s plight but has not taken steps to improve the situation. “We are waiting for real action from the government, so we will know for sure what to expect.”
But the government seems unopposed to the Se San’s damming. “Vietnam has plans to build more dams. On the Cambodia side we are poor, but we plan to build dams if we have money,” Hou Taing Eng said. “We are still studying the possibilities of the river.”
Vietnam’s dams have become an election issue for parties looking to unseat the CPP. The Center for Social Development listed it in its “Voter’s Guide” for the northeast as a local policy issue along with border encroachment, ethnic minorities’ rights to forests, and infrastructure development.
No participants at a June 27 regional public forum in Kratie town raised the topic, but the 13 parties fielding candidates in the northeast all laid out their positions in the voter guide. Most of them call for Vietnam to compensate Cambodians who live downstream and suffer because of the dams.
The Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party is the only one that has “absolutely” opposed Vietnam’s dam development. “They have to make the Se San enjoy its original environment for the welfare of the Khmer people in this region,” according to an outline of the party’s platform in the voter guide.
The Se San River Protection Network is currently seeking a meeting between its officials and those from the National Mekong River Committee, according to Ear Sophy, representative for the network, which is affiliated with NGO Forum.
“We want to have an official meeting with top Mekong officials so we can listen to what the government’s position will be,” she said.