Villagers and officials from Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces on Wednesday urged Vietnam, Cambodia and development agencies to stop construction of dams along the Se San River and prevent further harm caused by the downstream effects of an existing dam.
“If our environment is worse than before, then our life is worse than before, because our life depends on the water,” said Paou Horn Phan, deputy governor of Stung Treng. “We eat things from the water, drink the water, bathe in the water.”
Speaking at a one-day conference sponsored by the Oxfam Mekong Initiative and other NGOs, Paou Horn Phan said irregular water levels caused by the Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam had hurt fisheries and may have diminished water quality, causing sicknesses such as scabies, swollen stomachs and persistent numbness.
Worse, unexpected floods caused by water releases from the dam sweep away boats, houses, fishing equipment and even people, he said. “The flooding often happens at night, so people have trouble sleeping at night for fear of the flooding.”
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun agreed that the river had changed for the worse since the dam first affected water flows in 1996, though he said it was unclear how many people had been drowned. Research reports estimate as many as 39 people have died so far.
Despite an agreement, Vietnamese officials are still not notifying the Cambodian side about imminent water releases, a Ratanakkiri water official said.
And despite studies finding damaging downstream effects of the $1 billion Yali Falls dam, located about 70 km from the border, Vietnam is going ahead with plans for a “cascade of dams” on its side of the Se San. In June it announced the beginning of construction of the Se San 3 dam, even though Cambodia and Vietnam had not agreed on terms for environmental studies of the dam’s effects.
A study released at the conference charged that Vietnam had violated international law, as well as the so-called Mekong agreement, signed by the four countries of the lower Mekong in 1995 to facilitate cooperative development.
The agreement says that member countries must “make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects” to the environment. Member states notified that they are “causing substantial damage” are obliged to “cease immediately the alleged cause of harm” and investigate the cause.
Report author Michael Lerner said neither Cambodia nor the Mekong River Commission, a joint body set up to implement the Mekong agreement, has made strong statements that Vietnam has violated the agreement. That undermines the credibility of the agreement and the commission, he said. “It sets a bad precedent when you start violating an agreement,” he said.
Officials from the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, the government body that oversees Mekong issues, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
MRC officials responded in a statement that they could not force Vietnam to cease dam operations, only provide technical expertise on the river and facilitate dialogue between countries. The MRC has assisted in setting up a committee between the governments that has met twice and offered technical support to study impacts, it said.
Earlier this month the four countries signed an agreement formalizing procedures for consulting each other before future river developments such as dams, the MRC announced. The agreement requires six months between when a project is announced and when it can begin. Discussions on the agreement took years, reflecting its “highly sensitive” nature, the MRC said.
“Future developments on upstream tributaries like the Se San River will now require formal notification for any proposed uses in accordance with the 1995 Agreement,” the statement said.
The MRC said it plans to formalize rules and procedures governing water flows in 2004. Meanwhile, Vietnam announced in October the commencement of a study for a third of six proposed dams. Construction of a fourth is expected in 2004, Vietnamese officials have said.
Initial testing on the Se San showed no problems with water quality, said MRC spokesperson Delia Paul. But she said further testing would be necessary to be sure of results.