The Council of Ministers on Friday signed off on the Lower Sesan 2 dam project in Stung Treng province, despite longstanding criticism leveled against the project by environmental groups who say it could adversely affect 100,000 people as a consequence of reduced access to fish.
The 400-megawatt dam located on one of the Mekong River’s most important tributaries will be funded with a $781.52 million investment—a share of which is from the local conglomerate Royal Group—and will take at least five years to complete, the Council of Ministers said in a statement.
“The government has granted Hydro Power Lower Sesan 2 Co., Ltd., a joint company created by the cooperation of local companies and companies from Vietnam and a big hydropower company from China to invest $781.52 million,” the statement says.
The Council of Ministers also said that the government expects to earn $29.5 million in tax revenue per year once the dam in Sesan district’s Phluk commune starts to generate power.
The statement did not say when exactly work would begin on the dam, nor did it mention the monumental task of relocating the thousands of villagers who stand to be affected by the massive project.
The project, located below the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, will be the first Cambodian dam built in what is known as the “3S Basin” (Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers) and will cut two of the three rivers off from the mainstream Mekong.
The potential fallout from the dam is considerable.
A 2009 study carried out by Ian Baird, a 3S Basin fisheries expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed that the dam is set to displace 5,000 villagers alone in Sesan district.
But as many as 100,000 people who rely on the Sesan River in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces could lose the ability to catch fish.
An environmental impact assessment of the proposed dam began in 2004, with the aim of ensuring the “harmonization for citizens’ livelihoods who are affected by the construction.”
However, the assessment did not examine how the 70-meter-high dam would affect fisheries beyond the 3S Basin and only acknowledged that upstream fisheries in Ratanakkiri province would be affected, resulting in income loss for 30,000 villagers there.
The construction of the dam is in line with the government’s energy policy to increase its domestic energy production from less than 1,000 megawatts currently to more than 10,000 megawatts through the construction of more than 20 hydropower dams all over the country.
The Council of Ministers said in its statement on Friday that the Lower Sesan 2 dam would contribute to energy security and economic development, and that households in Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces would enjoy more power as a result.
“The project will offer jobs for thousands of Cambodian laborers during the construction period,” the statement says.
But that is likely to do little to appease the thousands of people who depend on the rivers for their livelihoods.
Chan Thon, a 70-year-old village representative from Sesan district’s Srekor commune, said on Friday that more than 400 families in two villages in his commune will be displaced as a result of the dam’s construction.
“The government and authorities repeatedly claim the construction of the hydropower Lower Sesan 2 dam will alleviate poverty and boost development, but we think differently,” he said. “We will be displaced, and our traditional fishing careers will be particularly affected.”
Mr. Thon, an ethnic Bunong man, said that villagers have never been consulted about their eviction and that authorities have so far made no mention of fair compensation for their relocation.
Srekor commune chief Ty Nginh said he was unsure how many people would be displaced by the dam, but acknowledged the government was working to find resettlement sites for affected families.
“I’m optimistic that my people will get jobs from the construction of this dam, and we hope to get power in our community,” he said.
According to the Council of Ministers, displaced families will be given up to 5 hectares of land when they are relocated.