Cambodian dam proceeds despite opposition over fish, ousted villagers

The Cambodian government has begun relocating some 5,000 villagers away from the flood site of the Lower Sesan 2 dam. The controversial project in the country’s northeast province of Stung Treng is sited less than a mile below the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two of the mighty Mekong’s most significant tributaries.

Having already suffered flooding, reduced fisheries, and other problems resulting from existing upstream dams like Yali Falls in Vietnam, communities within the watershed area have learned through experience how dams impact their livelihoods.

This has garnered widespread opposition to the Lower Sesan 2 project in riverbank communities both upstream and downstream of the site. Around 60 communities in the area, mostly inhabited by members of the Phnong, Lao, and Brov ethnic groups, belong to the 3S River Protection Network, an advocacy network opposing the dam whose name refers to the Sesan, Srepok, and Sesong Rivers.

The 400-megawatt dam, costing $816 million, was first approved by Cambodia’s cabinet in November 2012. In February 2013 overseas financing from the Chinese Development Bank was approved, effectively giving the project the go ahead.

The dam reservoir is set to flood over 30,000 hectares, most of it forest, including 1,200 hectares of community farmland and home gardens. The Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, a group of NGOs, reported that forest clearance, especially of valuable tree species, started in April 2013. Since then reports of illegal logging beyond the reservoir area have been frequent.

The site provides habitat for rare species, including kouprey (Bos sauveli), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), tiger (Panthera tigris), Eld’s deer (Rucervus eldii), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), and Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus).

The project was one of the first in Cambodia to feature an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). While environmental advocates have hailed this as an important step forward for the country’s infrastructure approval process, they have criticized the Lower Sesan 2 EIA as incomplete.

For instance, the EIA identified 106 fish species in the Srepok and Sesan rivers, but this is an underestimate according to experts. A 2011 report documented 240 species in the Srepok and 133 in the Sesan.

A 2012 study by researchers from the U.S. and Cambodia estimated that the dam will reduce fish biomass in the two rivers by over 9 percent, with major knock-on effects on local livelihoods both upstream and downstream from the dam, mainly due to the blockage of fish migrations. Though the dam constructor is attempting to integrate a fish channel, critics say this will be insufficient to prevent the decline of migratory fish species.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director with the advocacy group International Rivers, told mongabay.com that the EIA underestimates how wide ranging the effects of the dam are likely to be, with serious consequences for people whose livelihoods will be upended.

“The EIA only really looks at what would happen right in the immediate dam site area and not upstream and downstream. And what we know is that fish all the way from the Mekong River and fish that migrate up- and downstream will be impacted by this project. And so there are a lot of people upstream and downstream who are not going to receive any kind of compensation,” she said.

A 2009 report from the Rivers Coalition in Cambodia found that more than 38,000 people in 86 villages “would lose access to the vast majority of their fisheries resources” and that 78,000 people would lose some access to fish as a result of the dam. The EIA only goes so far as to admit that the impact on fish stocks will be considerable and that 90 percent of those living upstream, some 1,648 families, rely on fish for their livelihood.

The dam is a joint venture between Cambodia’s Royal Group, a company with no previous dam-building experience, and Chinese dam builder Hydrolancang International Energy Co., Ltd. Hydolancang, which maintains the controlling 51 percent stake in the dam, is owned by Chinese electricity-generating giant Huaneng Corporation.

Despite widespread concerns about the environmental and social effects of the project, construction of the dam is powering ahead apace. “The dam is 30 percent complete. The foundations are laid and the powerhouse is finished,” Trandem said.

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