In rush to electrify, Cambodia stirs the living and dead

Families in Cambodia have refused a government offer to move them to a newly-built village to make way for hydropower dams.

Nat Sota worries about the spirits of her ancestors.

They have been lying in watery graves since Cambodia’s newest hydroelectric dam flooded her village of Srekor, and with it, the nearby burial ground.

“We don’t know whether they can swim or not,” she said, sitting under a wooden house on stilts near the dam’s reservoir.

Nat Sota has earthly concerns too.

Only the red roof of the village primary school is now visible above the water, and she worries for her two young grandchildren if they are unable to get an education.

She is among 62 of the village’s ethnic Kreung, Bunong and Lao minority families who have refused the government’s offer to move them to a newly-built village.

Instead they have decamped to a settlement near the reservoir that flooded their homes, and are now stuck in limbo.

They say the government’s proposed site to is too far from the Sesan River, where their people have fished for generations, and the cash offer not enough to cover the loss of property and crops.

The plight of this community in a remote corner of northern Stung Treng province highlights the human cost of Cambodia’s push to bring power to the entire country.

“By 2020, all villages have to have access to the electricity supply,” said Victor Jona, a spokesman for the department of energy at the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

The Southeast Asian nation is well on its way, according to World Bank statistics.

In 2000, only 16 per cent of Cambodians had access to electricity. That increased to 31 per cent by 2010, and almost half the population was connected to the grid by 2016.

Much of that progress has been driven by dams.

Between 2010 and 2014, hydropower’s contribution to the energy mix jumped from 3 to 61 per cent, the World Bank said.

Cambodia is considering two new dams, both of which would dwarf the Lower Sesan 2 in terms of size and output, as well as the impact on land and fisheries.

The government has provided fair compensation to those who had to make way for seven dams built so far, Jona said, citing the Lower Sesan 2 as a “good example.”

He noted that most of the 860 families in villages affected by the dam have relocated to new sites, where authorities have built schools and health centres, as well as providing houses and farmland.

“Some people are not happy with the compensation,” he conceded.

In a letter to provincial authorities, the 62 families holding out in Srekor asked the government to recognise their new settlement as an “indigenous community” with rights to the land.

The government should provide cash compensation for their lost homes and crops, they said, and build infrastructure including a well, school and a health centre.

“Radical environmentalists”

The villagers said they stayed in their homes until rising waters forced them to move in December. The reservoir had begun filling up in late September when the Lower Sesan 2 Dam’s floodgates were closed.

Underscoring its importance to Cambodia’s power plan, Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the project, dismissing the concerns of “radical environmentalists” in his speech.

The dam will be running at full capacity by the end of the year, said Jona, with eight turbines producing a total 400 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

The project generated controversy even before its approval in 2012. Many of the 5,000 people in six villages in the reservoir area protested, and environmentalists predicted a devastating impact on fisheries.

A 2012 study in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ predicted that the Lower Sesan 2 Dam alone would cause a 9.3 per cent drop in fish biomass throughout the Mekong River Basin. 

The Mekong Basin is “the biggest inland fishery in the world,” said the study. But dams block migration, preventing some fish from reaching areas where they feed and spawn.

Villagers in Srekor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that one species of fish has already disappeared.

Two more hydropower projects under consideration would have an even greater impact, according to two different assessments.

“The Sambor Dam, proposed by the government of Cambodia, is probably the largest and most destructive dam in the Mekong River Basin,” according to the Natural Heritage Institute, a conservation group that assessed the project for the government.

The 2,600 MW dam across the Mekong would be 18 km wide, 33 m (36 yards) high and create a reservoir 82 km long. It would “be devastating for migratory fish stocks”, said the U.S.-based non-profit.

Upriver from Sambor, the proposed 978 MW Stung Treng Dam would inundate 21 villages that are home to 10,617 people, according to the Mekong River Commission, which is comprised of the four countries overseeing the river’s development.

Jona said the government is now focused on constructing coal-fired power plants, and has not yet decided whether to build more hydroelectric dams.

Development’s murky wake

The dams represent an existential question for Cambodia in its quest to electrify: are the benefits worth the costs? In the case of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, the government answered ‘yes’.

“Normally, when we do a project this size, development has to be balanced between environmental and social (concerns),” said Jona.

But for some like Kheun Fut, who refused to relocate and instead built a new house on high ground just metres from the reservoir’s edge, the cost of leaving was too high.

He guided a motorised canoe through the ghostly remains of his village, stopping to speak with his father who was salvaging the roof of his former home.

“I had a big house, but now I’ve lost it,” said 85-year-old Noy Fut, as he pried corrugated metal sheets from the rafters.

Kheun Fut used a paddle to push off from the submerged building and headed back to shore, steering between tree tops and past the red and gold roof of the village’s Buddhist pagoda.

“This is development,” he said, the canoe leaving a murky wake behind him.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.

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