Thousands of workers, mostly Chinese, are hustling working on the Lower Sesan 2 (LS2) dam site in Northeast Cambodia, and nearly 40% of their work is complete. The US$816 million project was approved by Cambodia’s Council of Ministers in 2012. However, in November 2014, the dam construction was stopped due to environmental controversy and opposition from communities and some NGOs, but has been re-started since March 2015. And, as construction has resumed, the communities concerns have been reprised and the trouble has restarted.
The 400 megawatt LS2 dam has a reservoir size of 33,000 hectares. It is anticipated to affect more than 5,000 people in five villages that must be resettled, but so far only three of these villages have agreed to be resettled. Some people of these three villages have started to receive compensation, but their new houses have not been built yet. However, many more people will be affected away from the dam site upstream and downstream of the project.
“If I do not receive compensation, I will be empty-handed”
Mr. Rotha, a villager from Srea Sronok village, Kbal Romeas commune, Sesan district is one of the people who has received compensation. However, he seems to be not very happy. “If I do not receive compensation, I will be empty-handed. The dam construction is almost half complete already. If I do not receive compensation until when the dam is finished and the floodwaters rise, I may have to move without receiving any reimbursement. So, I agreed to take the money” Mr. Rotha said with a sad look in his eyes.
The reason for receiving compensation from one of Mr. Rotha’s neighbors is different. “I saw that many of my neighbors had already received compensation so I followed them” shared Mr. Dara from Chnup village in the same commune.
Mr. Dara was also concerned about his livelihood in the new resettlement place. “I went to see the resettlement site, which is 20 kilometers from my old village. I think we cannot base our livelihood on fishing in the river anymore because the new site is too far from the river. I also do not think that we can get a better income from the new place because the soil quality is not as good as in my old village.”
“I do not want this dam”
Whilst Mr. Rotha and Mr. Dara have signed the resettlement document, Ms. Choum from Srae Kor village refused to sign. “I’m not going to move anywhere. My ancestors have lived hundreds of years here in Srea Kor. Their graves are here. I was born and grew up in this place. I do not want them to move and let them destroy my house. I do not want this dam” Ms. Choum says with her hand wiping away her tears.
“The government promised a lot when doing this project, but we poor villagers only get disadvantages from this dam” Ms. Choum said.
Sitting nearby and seeing her neighbor crying, Ms. Neary added “Our village is near the forest and the river. We like living here. There are plenty of mushrooms in this area. We often go to the forest to collect mushrooms. We also catch fish in the river. We don’t know how to earn a living at the new site.”
“We villagers believe in the God of forests. Cutting more trees will wake the God up. He will get angry and curse. We are worried” Ms. Neary said with anxious eyes.
LS2 is the largest dam ever built in Cambodia. The dam blocks the Sesan River just 1.5 km downstream from its confluence with the Srepok River and is 25 km upstream from the confluence of these two large rivers with the Mekong River. According to the Cambodian government, the project is expected to provide a stable power supply of 400 megawatt to the national grid of Cambodia, which is a country whose electricity price is among the most expensive in the world, and that has a thirst for electricity for development. The project is understood by some to be intended to contribute some of its power to local industrial production, including wood processing. Whether the power will finally be distributed to local areas remains to be seen.
“With a new source of power from LS2, we expect to increase the output of wood and rubber processed in local factories” said a local official from the Stung Treng Province Mine and Energy Department, who is also a member of the LS2 Compensation Board. “Our rubber processing needs a stable electricity supply capacity of 3 megawatts. Resettled people will be granted 5 hectares per household and they can grow rubber on that land for sale to local wood processing factories. That is one of the good choices for new livelihoods for villagers.”
He did not forget to add “At present, Stung Treng Province must import electricity from Laos and Vietnam. We are ‘burning money’ for that.”
“They said I could grow rubber plants to sell, but I do not know how to grow rubber and do not want to” insisted Ms. Choum the villager. “I heard that for a rubber plantation you need to invest a lot of money. I do not have much money to invest. In addition, the soil in the new place is not so fertile as in my place now. I’m not going anywhere.”
“They should build resettlement areas first and then build the dam” said a Cambodian NGO representative. “They resumed the LS2 construction while a large part of the villagers had not yet agreed to move. Their actions show that they do not respect the locals.”
Recent fish migrations makes some happy, some worried
Visiting Khampon village in Khampon commune, Sesan district on a weekend morning villagers were drinking tea and chatting together. While Srea Kor village is located upstream near the dam site and is affected by the reservoir and so has to be resettled, Khampon village is located downstream of the dam and does not have to be resettled. However, this does not mean that they are happily unaffected by the dam.
“The river water here used to be pure. All of us [the villagers] take and use water from the river. But since the dam was built, the water has become very muddy and dirty. I think that the dirty water has caused the fishes to run away. Now catching fish in the river has become much more difficult than before” said Mr. Sonith, a village elder in Khampon.
A similar situation has not occurred in all villages downstream of the dam, however. Whilst Khampon villagers have seen less fish, further downstream where the Sesan River meets with the Mekong River, fishes are flocking in. Mr. Vibol, a fisherman on Koh Sralau Island, excitedly shows us his “achievement” – a fish weighing nearly 3 kilograms that he has just caught from the river. He said that in this fish season some fishermen have spent only 2 to 3 hours to complete their hauls, whilst previously the haul would have taken all day.
But Mr. Meach Mean, coordinator of the NGO 3S Rivers Protection Network, is not as optimistic as fisherman Mr. Vibol. “Fishes are running away from the dam construction site so now there are many fishes in this area. But once the construction is finished, the dam will block fish spawning migration routes and the fish population will soon decrease. I am worried that the joy of fishermen here will not last for long” Mr. Meach Mean said.
The impact of the LS2 dam on fish migration has caused much concern amongst experts and NGOs[1. Ogonda, Kim. Starving the Mekong: Expected social and environmental impacts from construction and operation of the Lower Sesan II Dam. Berkeley: International Rivers, 2014.], and until now no mitigation solution has appeared feasible. According to Mr. Meach Mean, the Sesan River basin constitutes one third of the area of Northeastern Cambodia, and contains three out of the four key tributary river ‘highways’ that help migratory fish species from the Mekong River reach their spawning sites. The LS2 dam is being built only a few kilometers downstream from the confluence of the Sesan River and Sre Pok River. According to Mr. Meach Mean, scientists have said that the 8 kilometer long wall of the dam will prevent fish migration to get upstream to spawn – which accounts for 40% of the fish species in the whole Mekong river system. Scientists estimate that the dam may cause total fish production in the Mekong River to reduce by 9.3%.[2. NGO Statement, “Public Statement – Lower Sesan 2 Dam: Call for release of information on project redesign and a new Environmental Impact Assessment” 16 October 2014]
“Fish spawn upstream, then juvenile fish swim and feed downstream. When they become adult fish they swim upstream again to spawn” explains Mr. Meach Mean. “Approximately 40% of the fish swim to the Mekong upstream and the remaining 60% turn to the branches of the Sesan, Sekong or Srepok Rivers. The LS2 dam will block most of the fish swimming to the Sesan and Srepok Rivers upstream.”
Many other concerns still remained
Not only will the LS2 reduce the number and species of fish, but the dam will also reduce silt flow by 6 to 8 percent, which is rich in nutrients and fertilizes rice fields in downstream areas.[3. NGO Statement, “Public Statement – Lower Sesan 2 Dam: Call for release of information on project redesign and a new Environmental Impact Assessment” 16 October 2014]
According to Dr. Dao Trong Tu, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development of Water Resources and Adaptation to Climate Change (CEWAREC) in Vietnam, there will be implications of the LS2 dam for the downstream plain in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. As a result, the granary of Vietnam will lose its fertility and the rice yield will be affected. Dr. Tu explained that this will result from the dozens of dams being planned and built on both the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries, and will be exacerbated with the construction of the LS2.
“The fish migration ladder routes and sediment drains, which are solutions that the dam builders have proposed, are just demagoguery” says Dr. Tu. “Both measures will have little effect. The number of migratory fishes that can pass the ladder is very limited. And a very small portion of the alluvial sediment will escape through the exhaust, because most of the sediment will be deposited above the dam since it will slow down the flow of the river” he worries.
“They say that hydropower is clean because there are no carbon dioxide emissions, but they do not take in to account the cutting down of trees for the hydroelectric dam or the numerous other large environmental impacts” says Mr. Jeff Rutherford, a Thailand-based American sustainability expert. “If we look at the historical building of hydropower dams, whilst some research is carried out before dams are constructed, little research is conducted afterwards to assess the actual impacts.”
Besides the environmental impacts, the economic efficiency of the LS2 is also thought to be suspect by some. It is expected that after completion the dam will produce 400 megawatts of electricity for Cambodia’s national grid. However, Mr. Jeff Rutherford warned that many dams do not achieve their original estimated capacity of electricity production because feasibility study figures are not always accurate.
From a global perspective, concerning the economic efficiency of large hydropower dams, a recent Oxford University study in 2014 examined 245 large dams in 65 countries worldwide and found that 96% of the dams run over their original estimated cost and 44% took longer to construct than expected.[4. Ansar, Atif and Flyvbjerg, Bent and Budzier, Alexander and Lunn, Daniel, Should We Build More Large Dams? The Actual Costs of Hydropower Megaproject Development (March 10, 2014). Energy Policy, March 2014, pp.1-14. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2406852] “We find that even before accounting for negative impacts on human society and environment, the actual construction cost of large dams are too high to yield a positive return” the study concluded.
However, despite the worries and concerns in fact and in theory, the LS2 dam continues to be built.
Authors note and acknowledgements
Villagers’ names in this article have been changed. Mai Lan appreciates the support of the Mekong Matters Journalism Network, who facilitated a visit to the area in June 2015.