sesan district, Stung Treng province – Hundreds of villagers gathered here on the banks of the Sesan River yesterday to learn about their uncertain future, as they met with government officials to discuss the imminent construction of the Lower Sesan II dam.
The Vietnamese-funded hydropower project will flood tens of thousands of hectares of forest and farmland and displace 5,000 mostly indigenous minority villagers in Sesan district.
News of their resettlement first reached villagers in 2008, but they had not been officially informed of their eviction until now. Even though construction is now scheduled to start in October, officials offered few details yesterday about how villagers will be compensated or what their new homes and farms will look like.
Feun Sum, a councilor in Srekor commune, said the lack of information about the resettlement plan concerned villagers. “I am worried about [the fact] that we still don’t have a clear destination,” he said.
Tep Bunnarith, director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association, which organized the forum in Srekor, said he knew that a resettlement plan had already been approved by the government but said local officials and villagers had not received any details.
“Now it’s almost the construction period and we wonder why the report results have not been shared among the affected communities,” he said.
“We are also concerned about…the project implementation, how the [resettlement] report translates into implementation and also how much budget will be invested for coping with the [resettlement] issues.”
Mr Bunnarith said that because the resettlement report was unavailable, he had given a presentation on the project’s environmental impact assessment, which contained a short chapter on resettlement, adding that this had been first project documentation shared directly with affected communities.
Hak Vi Mean, deputy head of the Stung Treng provincial resettlement committee, said officials were still working on the details of how the villagers, who come from Srekor, Phluk, Kbal Romeas and Talat communes, would be resettled and compensated.
“We are now studying more about the area,” he said. “We are searching for a place with fertile land and water.”
“They are not all happy but they have to move and agree since they know this is the development of the government,” Mr Vi Mean said. “They will try to adjust for the sake of the national development…. It is their sacrifice.”
Pang Peng, provincial director of water resources, told assembled villagers there would not only be disadvantages to the dam’s construction, as locally generated electricity would benefit communities. “When we have more electricity, we will have more work,” he said.
Cambodia and Vietnam signed an agreement in April for the $806-million project–then Vietnam’s biggest investment in Cambodia to date–which will send half of its electricity to Vietnam and to Cambodia’s northeast.
The 400-megawatt power station will be built by EVN, the state-owned Vietnamese electricity giant, and will block the Lower Sesan River just below the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, creating a reservoir that will flood 20,000 hectares of forest, 10,000 hectares of farmland and seven villages, forcing 5,000 villagers from their homes.
The dam will block fish migration on both rivers, affecting the livelihoods of another 30,000 villagers living upstream in Ratanakkiri province, according to the project’s impact assessment.
Villagers voiced anxiety about the future and disbelief over the fact that their lives in their rustic villages along the Sesan and Srepok rivers would soon come to an end.
Srey Bunporm, a 40-year-old villager from Krabei Chrum village on the Srepok River, said he feared for the future after resettlement, as villagers would have to find new livelihoods to replace current activities such as fishing.
“Here we have mango and other fruit trees and fishing and farming. When we move to the new place we will have nothing,” he said. “We are very worried that we will suffer from a lot of things this coming year.”
Keo Mit, a representative of the Srekor villagers, said local communities would only suffer the negative impacts of the dam on their lives, while the electricity generated by the dam would not offer them substantial benefits.
“People think they would lose rather than gain,” he said.
Ian Baird, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US and a fisheries expert, studied the Lower Sesan II project in 2009, estimating that the number of people indirectly affected by the project was many times higher than the estimates in EVN’s project studies.
Mr Baird concluded that at least 78,000 people living upstream from the dam along the Sesan and Srepok and their tributaries would suffer lower fish catches due to the project, while at least 22,277 people downstream in Stung Treng province would see their fish catches and water resources affected.
In an e-mail on Tuesday, Mr Baird said he did not see “any benefits” for communities in the northeastern provinces, “as people are not expected to be appropriately compensated for impacts and most of the electricity generated will be exported to Vietnam.”
Environmental campaigners International Rivers meanwhile criticized EVN, saying it had pursued the project “without the due caution and consideration it requires.”
“Its environmental impact assessment failed to meet international standards as many people who will be impacted by the dam were never consulted,” Ame Trandem, Mekong coordinator at International Rivers, said in an e-mail.
Ms Trandem said that the dam’s impact would be too “severe and far-reaching” to warrant development as it would wipe out local fisheries and impoverish river communities.
“The livelihoods, food security and culture of the region’s people will be jeopardized,” she said, adding that the project would also affect at least a dozen important fish species that migrate from the Tonle Sap lake into the Sesan and Srepok rivers.
The Lower Sesan II dam is just one of a total of 45 planned by Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam on the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers, which flow from the two neighboring countries into Ratanakkiri province and then into the Mekong River in Stung Treng.
Cambodia has four other dams planned on the rivers, while Laos and Vietnam have already built several dams upstream and have dozens other projects planned.