US Cables Say Sesan River Had No Warning System for Floods

As recently as 2007, there was no effective warning system in place to notify Sesan river com­mun­ities in Ratanakkiri province about the re­lease of water by up­stream Viet­nam­­ese dams, ac­cord­ing to a US diplomatic cable re­leased last week.

Local villagers have long complained that the dams caused sudden, destructive floods that have killed people and livestock, de­stroying homes and farms, while water quality and fish stocks have also sharply declined in the Sesan.

Officials said yesterday that an improved warning system has been put in place in recent years, but a local NGO worker in Rata­nak­­kiri said flood warnings still rarely reach villagers.

In a cable, published by the anti­-se­­crecy organization Wiki­Leaks and created in September 2007 in the name of former Am­bassador Jo­seph Mus­someli, the embassy de­­scribed an “extremely inefficient com­­mun­ication system within Cam­­­bodia.”

Yun Chetana, then-director of the Ratanakkiri provincial re­sourc­­es department, explained to embassy officials the warning system then in place: A Vietnamese fax warning of a dam discharge was sent via Phnom Penh to the provincial post of­fice in Banlung, where it would remain several days before being collected by Mr Chetana’s de­part­ment, which had no fax. Only then would Mr Che­tana send a motorcycle taxi to district officials warning them of dam releases. The district officials would then inform villagers.

The cable also said provincial of­ficials readily dismissed concerns over the social and environmental impacts of the Viet­nam­ese dams developed since the 1990s, or the expected impacts of the nu­merous dams planned on the Se­san, Srepok and Sekong rivers in Laos, Vietnam and Cam­bodia.

Cambodia National Mekong Com­­mittee Deputy Secretary-Gen­eral Watt Botkosal said that cur­rently, Vietnamese faxes in English go directly to the CNMC and the provincial governor’s office, after which the CNMC will relay the message to provincial water resources departments.

He said Vietnam has agreed to no­­ti­fy Cambodia of any planned wa­ter re­lease 15 days in advance, al­though Viet­namese officials are fre­quent­ly late, re­sulting in only a week’s no­tice or less.

You La, director of Ratanak­kiri’s provincial water resource department, said his office now re­ceives the Vietnamese message, translated from English into Khmer by the CNMC, after a couple days via fax. Then, he said, it is disseminated to district and commune officials via phone or human carrier.

However, Meach Mean, coordinator for the 3S-Rivers Network based in Banlung, said that despite the supposed communication im­provements since 2007, villagers had received no warning ahead of major floods in recent years.

“We saw the floods in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but we didn’t get any warning,” he said.

Mr Mean said there had been no government warning in Sep­tember 2009, when Typhoon Ket­sana struck and massive flash floods—believed to have come from discharging Viet­namese dams—de­stroyed more than 100 homes and thou­sands of hect­ares of crops, while dozens of ani­mals and several people drowned.

“Sometimes people up and down­stream call each other on the phone [to warn of floods]. It’s faster than an official message,” he said.





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