andong meas district, Ratanakkiri province – Kanat village today is an abandoned ghost town of empty wooden homes on stilts. For 15 years, more than 300 ethnic Kachok villagers lived there, farming and fishing, with no plans to leave.
Then two years ago, the Se San River rose quickly and flooded the village. At first, some villagers assumed it was one of the naturally occurring floods that come along every few years.
But in the weeks afterward, most of the village’s pigs and chickens died. Skin rashes broke out on many of the children after bathing. Fish catches fell, and villagers noticed that the river would rise and fall several meters in one day. And more floods came.
“It was too much. It is easier to live here,” said 30-year-old Sern Sern, who moved his family two years ago to one of Kanat village’s two new sites.
After hearing that children from a nearby ethnic Jarai village were swept away and drowned by the rising river, Kanat villagers decided to move. Most families chose to live near a hill, where there is plenty of land to grow rice. Others chose another site, close to the river but safer, where they could continue catching fish.
Villagers and NGO officials are certain that the cause of all the trouble in Kanat, and numerous other indigenous villages along the Se San River, is Vietnam’s newly built Yali Falls Dam, located 70 km upriver from the Vietnam-Cambodia border.
Yali Falls is the largest hydroelectric power project in the lower Mekong River basin, producing 720 megawatts of electricity. The $1 billion construction project began in 1993 and became operational earlier this year.
Trouble began for villagers in Ratanakkiri in 1996, when water was released from the dam’s 65-square-km reservoir, sending a surge of water downstream into Cambodia and flooding several villages. Floods and wild fluctuations in water level have continued sporadically since then.
More than 20,000 people in 59 villages living along the Se San River have suffered from the dam’s effects, according to a report issued in May 2000 by the Ratanakkiri fisheries office and the Non-Timber Forests Products project. A July 2001 report conducted by NTFP found that communities continue to suffer.
In many villages, farm animals and fishing equipment have been swept away by the rising water, causing serious financial hardship. Villagers told interviewers that more than 30 people have drowned since 1996.
Most villagers have stopped panning for gold, a traditional way to make ends meet in Ratanakkiri during trying times. With spoiled crops and few fish to catch, some villagers have turned to illegal wildlife hunting to support their families.
“The ecological impacts of changing the hydrological regime of the river have been and continue to be enormous,” the recent NTFP report said. “It is highly likely that locals will continue to be faced with serious problems caused by the Yali Falls dam into the future, unless measures are taken to mitigate the impacts of downstream water releases.”
One water release occurred in March 2000, damaging hundreds of farms and killing numerous animals in the province. At least four people drowned, officials said.
“If we can’t solve this problem immediately and the Vietnamese side lets out water again, our farmers in the area will face a big problem making a living,” Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said at the time.
But Vietnamese embassy officials questioned whether anyone died and said Cambodian officials had exaggerated the property damage. They claimed ample warning was given of the water release.
In April 2000, the Mekong River Commission, which mediates disputes over use of water resources in the Mekong basin, brought Cambodian and Vietnamese officials together. The two sides agreed that Vietnam would notify Cambodia ahead of time when releasing water. They also agreed that water would be released gradually, not abruptly.
Earlier this week, both Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung and Kham Khoeun said that Yali Falls officials always inform Ratanakkiri officials before releasing dam water.
“We work very closely with Vietnam,” said Kham Khoeun. The governor added that villagers do not suffer as much these days because it is the dry season and the water is low.
Fluctuations have been more controlled in recent months, now that the dam is operational and flow is more easily controlled, according to Gordon Patterson of NTFP.
But problems still remain. Water quality remains bad, prompting many Ratanakkiri villagers to dig wells, which usually costs the equivalent of one cow.
Villagers along the river in Ratanakkiri’s Veun Sai district and Stung Treng province have also been affected. NTFP, Oxfam America and Partners for Development plan to conduct a study of Stung Treng villages next month.
In one Stung Treng village, as many as 15 people have died from water-related sickness in recent years, according to David Wright, Stung Treng program coordinator for Partners for Development. Across the river, in a village where water pumps and filters had been distributed, no villagers have died, he said. “That certainly increased the demand for water pumps in the area,” said Wright.
Another dam has been proposed in Vietnam on the Se San River, 20 km closer to Cambodia, prompting yet another study. Electricity of Vietnam, which would operate the “Se San 3” dam, is planning to study the Yali Falls dam’s environmental impact on Ratanakkiri.
NTFP and Ratanakkiri fisheries officials urged the Asian Development Bank in May 2000 not to fund the new dam because of the adverse effects they said the project would have on Cambodia’s indigenous peoples.
Villagers in Kanat said they want the Yali Falls dam torn down. And they asked for some kind of compensation from Vietnamese authorities.
“We are scared of the water,” said 45-year-old villager Roacham Ham. “It is up to the Cambodian government to help us.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)