With Waters to Rise, Ministry Tires of Families’ Concerns

Disdain and pain flooded a meeting on Thursday between government officials and families whose villages are set to be submerged by a dam’s reservoir.

Representing families affected by the construction of the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam site, about 10 indigenous villagers traveled from Stung Treng province to Phnom Penh for the chance to plead their case to officials from the Mines and Energy Ministry.

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Villagers in Stung Treng province who oppose the construction of the Lower Sesan II dam march to a shrine in 2015. (Matt Walker/The Cambodia Daily)

Facing the loss of his village, Srey Ybek said he had taken the government’s compensation offer of a house in a new village along a highway.

On Thursday, he stood up to say that it was almost impossible to support his family there. All his life, he had lived using trees and the resources of the forest, he said. Now he had to find money.

“We’ve lost the living we had before. The animals—we’ve lost them, and the rice land.”

He said he had no place to raise his water buffalo and cows, and the land he had been given for rice was 23 km from his house—too far to walk.

At this point, Norn Sameth, a representative of the ministry, cut him off.

“Don’t talk so much,” he said. “I’ve had meetings on this issue five or six times already.”

Thong Samon, 40, said he had taken the alternative compensation of land in the new village and $6,000 to build a house, but the money he had been given was not enough to buy the necessary construction materials, while the conditions in the new village—drought and no work—meant that he had already had to sell his cows and water buffalo to feed his family.

Mr. Samon said he couldn’t take a ready-made house because all the company-built houses were identical and made of low-quality wood.

Mr. Sameth laughed in response.

“They say the houses we made are the same,” he said. “Well, if we made the houses all different, how many plans would I have to draw then?”

Sarom Sakhom, 62, is vowing to never leave the condemned village, not even when the dam closes—which, according to the ministry representatives, would be in September. Her plan is to build floating houses and fish the reservoir, or to wade to its shore when the flood comes and build again there.

“This was our old place, the place where we had our dreams, where we had our children,” Ms. Sakhom said.

She said she went into the meeting—organized by the NGO Forum on Cambodia—hoping that the representatives of the ministry would understand the situation of hundreds of other families whose houses will be submerged by the waters.

“I would like them to understand how we live, how it is we support our families and our lives,” she said.

Environmental groups have said that the 400-megawatt dam will ultimately affect about 5,000 people living in the Mekong River basin and devastate fisheries.

But there were no indications on Thursday that the villagers’ messages had got through to the government officials.

Pan Narith, another representative of the ministry, said the villagers had been given a lot of time over the past three years to be heard.

“If they don’t agree, what should we do?” he asked. “We’re waiting to solve their problems. But they just find a reason to disagree here, another reason there.”

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