An official in Stung Treng province said there was no way to grant a last-minute reprieve requested on Thursday by villagers whose homes could be flooded within days once testing of the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam begins on Saturday.
About 10 representatives of the more than 100 families traveled to Phnom Penh on Thursday for a media conference hosted by the NGO Forum to publicly implore the government to delay testing of the dam for one more month. The families—most of them from indigenous ethnic minorities—have refused to move to a relocation site the government has prepared for them in Sesan district, reluctant to give up their ancestral lands and worried about losing their traditional way of life.
They say they are also skeptical that the reservoir the dam will create will reach their villages and have picked out nearby hills to which they would move.
“People have refused to leave the villages because it is easy to make money there from fishing and raising animals based on our ethnic traditions,” Choeun Sreymom, one of the villagers, said on Thursday. “We are asking the government to delay…for one month for the people in Srekor and Kbal Romeas villages because they need time to move their belongings to the new hills.”
She said they also wanted the government to equip the hills with roads, clinics, schools and clean water, and to measure their current homes so they could negotiate for compensation later.
The government says about 120 families have yet to leave the villages. The villagers themselves put the number at 180 on Thursday. Contacted later, Duong Pov, a deputy governor, said any delay was out of the question.
“We have prepared a new relocation site for those families but they refused,” he said. “We will close the dam following the schedule and we cannot delay it because of a few people.”
Mr. Pov said the families may be allowed to stay on the hills they have picked out for themselves, but only temporarily because they lie inside rubber plantations the government has granted to different companies.
On Sunday, Mr. Pov said the government would also have about 20 boats and trucks on hand to evacuate families that continued to stay put as the waters rise. The 400-megawatt Lower Sesan, a joint venture between Cambodia’s Royal Group and China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, will be the largest hydropower dam in the country once it starts operating as scheduled on September 25.