Cambodia dams

A fisherman works near the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Paksey, northern Laos. There are serious concerns about the environmental impact of foreign investment in Laos. Pic: AP.

By Daniel Quinlan

“From my view, I don’t want to have it, but it is development, we can’t stop them,” says Srekor’s village chief, Leang Saroeurn.

Cambodia’s impressive yearly GDP growth rates of 7 percent for the last decade have come, in part, through a ravenous consumption of the countries natural resources.

While this cashing in on natural resources has helped boost macro economic figures, they have also highlighted the divide between rich and poor and created a growing pool of people disenfranchised and removed from their traditional lands. This in turn has helped build and fuel Cambodia’s on-going political crisis.

Between 2000 and 2012, according to researchers from the University of Maryland, Cambodia lost 7 percent of its forest cover, much of it driven by the thirst for luxury wood and large plantations.

But it is not only the country’s land and trees that are in danger, its rivers are increasingly the target of development plans.

The Chinese-built Lower Russei Dam, Cambodia’s largest, went online earlier this month with a reported 333 mega watt capacity.

Further north around the Lower Sesan 2 project, trucks and earth moving equipment have started preparing the dam site. When completed it will provide over 420 Mega Watt capacity to the power starved nation and become Cambodia’s largest hydro dam, for at least a little while.

To becomes Cambodia’s biggest dam it will first have to flood seven villages. While its village chief may be resigned to the powerful forces he can’t control, other less tangible forces are also on Leang Saroeurn’s mind.

“If we are talking about the spirits, we don’t know whether they are going to be the same or not, from our old village to the new one,” he said.

He is not alone. The indigenous people of the area mix Buddhism with ancient forms of sprit and ancestor worship. Seventy-eight-year-old Chan Thun worries that “if we are relocated, the spirits and our ancestors could curse or mistreat us.”

More worldly concerns also exist. Critics say that upriver dams are already struggling to reach their capacity and that during summer, when there is the most demand for power, the projects’ output will be closer to 100 Mega Watts.

According to the Asia Development Bank the dam will be an extremely inefficient considering the area of flooded land.

Land disputes are common around large-scale development projects the world over but they are even more urgent in a country with Cambodia’s levels of poverty.

Land, rivers and natural resources can be the difference between life and death for people with little liquidity in the cash economy and are dependent on the protein of fish and the medicines of forests.

One study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found the dam will cause a 9.3 percent drop in fish stocks across the basin and will threaten up to 50 species of fish.

Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, has battled against the Lower Sesan 2 project for years. He is concerned about the ability of locals to sustain themselves on the proposed relocation sites. So are the villagers who have to move.

According to Open Development Cambodia, an organisation that publishes development data, some 50 hydropower projects are either planned or are underway in the country, many of which fall well below best practices in terms of local consultation, compensation and environmental impacts.

The damming of rivers is a touchy political issue across the planet, especially for those downstream, and the Mekong and its tributaries are no exception.

At a seminar on water at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said in 2011: “It would not be over-exaggerating … to view the water resources of the 21st century as the oil of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

He is not alone. Indian academic Brahma Chellaney, in his ominously titled book from 2011, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’, makes a similar argument.

Dams on the Mekong, the world’s 12th largest river, are an increasingly tense issue. The Mekong plays host to one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries and is a life-source for 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin.

China has the largest number of hydroelectric dams in the world, and that experience is being used to help build dams in downstream countries. They are now involved in at least four of the mainstream dams on the Mekong, and even more on its tributaries.

In many ways it is, quite literally, a race to the bottom. The Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) ‘prior consultation’ process was an effort to reduce regional tensions but the commission doesn’t cover tributaries and is far from a cure-all.

Laos’s controversial $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam, initially halted due to the objections of Cambodia and Vietnam, is now going ahead.

Don Sahong Dam, closer to the Cambodian border and potentially even more problematic in terms of impacts on downstream fishers, is also likely to go ahead. It too failed to get the prior approval MRC countries, endangering the credibility of the commission itself.

(MORE: Dam dilemmas: Laos cashes in on hydro)

To make matters worse, according to the International Energy Agency, demands for energy in Southeast Asia will increase by more than 80% by 2035, creating more pressure for projects whatever the environmental impact and their associated human costs.

This pressure is already apparent in Cambodia. Only 26% of the population has access to electric power, making it one of the lowest electrification rates in the world, according to the World Bank. Power is expensive and much of it is imported from neighbouring countries.

Around the Lower Sesan 2 site last week it was the burning season. Smoke drifted from dwindling forest across recently cleared land. Logs sat by roads. And poor people contemplated their relocation to less fertile ground.

Near the river, Vann Thea, was sewing cloths in her small bussness. Taking a short break, she said, “I don’t want to go to the new place. I just only want to live here.” Unfortunately, like hundreds of thousands of her compatriots, her wishes are no match for development.

Additional reporting from Phak Seangly and Daniel Pye