Sharing the Srepok River: Cambodian Communities Downstream of Vietnam Dams Finally Get a Hearing

by 3S Working Group
Thursday, February 1, 2007

“Chances are you won’t pick up a hydro-related publication these days that doesn’t feature news of hydroelectric developments in Vietnam,” a major hydropower- industry magazine recently exclaimed. Vietnam’s booming economy has left it facing major power shortages that it plans to address in part through a massive hydropower development program, including within the Sesan and Srepok River basins. Both rivers originate in Vietnam’s central highlands, and flow into Northeast Cambodia.  
If Vietnam’s record so far is any indication, downstream Cambodian communities have much to fear in their neighbor’s hydrorush. Over the past decade, communities dependent upon the once abundant resources of the Sesan River have become impoverished due to impacts from the Yali Falls Dam 80 kilometers upstream in Vietnam.

Since 1996, when construction began, 55,000 people living downstream have suffered from daily erratic water fluctuations, widespread flooding, illness due to poor water quality, loss of riverbank gardens, and diminished fish stocks. Dam-induced flooding has killed 39 people. Average income has plummeted from around $109 to $46 per month. Four other major dams currently in operation or under construction have compounded the impact of Yali Falls, which commenced full operation in 2001.

Since 2003, Vietnam has also been constructing dams on the Srepok River without public consultation or consideration of the impacts on downstream communities in Cambodia. The bitter experience of Cambodian communities living along the nearby Sesan River has made the Srepok villagers rightly concerned.  

Villagers blame unusual flooding of the Srepok River since 2004 on the construction activity upstream, although the Vietnamese authorities deny the connection, and say the floods are natural. Sin Thong Lao, a villager from Lumpait District, said, “Sometimes the water will dry up and sometimes we have serious floods. There were already three floods in the last year. And in 2006, we experienced severe flooding as we have never seen before.” Livestock, riverside gardens, and other property have been lost. “Because of the floods people face a shortage of food, and are now forced to seek employment outside,” she said.  

In response to the impacts of the Yali Falls Dam, a local peoples’ movement developed along the Sesan River, supported by several local NGOs. As the threat of unrestrained hydropower development spread to the Srepok River and the Sekong River – another transboundary river shared between upstream Laos and Cambodia – the movement strengthened and grew.

The Sesan-Srepok-Sekong (“3S”) working group has determinedly campaigned for reparations and to prevent further destructive hydropower development in the region. While the Sesan villagers are yet to receive compensation, the 3S issue is now firmly on the agenda of the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, as well as the donors who are supporting hydropower development in Vietnam.

For over a year the 3S Working Group had been calling for official consultation on draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports for the Sesan and Srepok rivers. The reports, prepared as part of Vietnam’s National Hydropower Plan, detail likely downstream impacts and recommend mitigation measures of future dams. The Norwegian and Swedish bilateral aid agencies, NORAD and SIDA, are strong supporters of Vietnam’s hydropower sector and have been funding the development of the National Hydropower Plan since 1999.  

On January 12, a consultation to discuss the Srepok report finally took place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, sponsored by the Norwegian and Swedish Embassies. The EIA report anticipates major changes in water flow and reduced fish stocks that will affect an estimated 11,000 Cambodians living along the river’s banks from Vietnam’s Srepok hydropower developments.  

The meeting marks a seminal point in Vietnam’s acknowledgement of downstream impacts from its hydropower development and its international responsibilities. At the meeting, for the first time villagers were able to express their concerns directly to Vietnamese government officials and the Srepok dams’ developer, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN), a state-owned corporation.

The Srepok provides great potential for hydropower development, both in Vietnam and Cambodia,” said Cambodia’s Minister of Environment, H.E. Mok Mareth, in opening remarks at the meeting. He reflected on the damage caused by the Yali Falls Dam, saying, “Cambodia needs development, but we also need conservation,” he said. Cambodia is also investigating hydropower projects on its stretch of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers.

Community representatives, NGOs and government officials all raised concern that the report, which was based on only two livelihoods. In a written statement, they called on EVN to halt dam construction until agreement for compensation, life insurance, flood warning procedures, and benefit-sharing between the two countries had been made. Dr. Lam Du Son promised to “find an agreement, to find solutions, and to address the damages.”

Yet, negotiations between Cambodia and Vietnam through the Joint Committee for the Sesan River has stalled and is yet to result in compensation or remedy for affected villagers. Kim Sangha of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, a group advocating for the rights of dam-affected communities, said, “We appreciate the commitment and promises that were given by EVN during the meeting. But we want these promises to become reality.”

Despite the lack of concrete changes resulting from the meeting, many villagers felt the consultation was a step in the right direction. “We wanted Vietnam to hear what was happening here,” concluded Po Sum of Pum Themy village in Ratanakiri province. “Our main request was to ask Vietnam to help the affected people here, because the burden of life is getting worse and worse.”

The consultation was, however, unable to dispel many Srepok villagers’ fears that the dams will cause more harm than good. They are skeptical about the commitments made by Vietnamese and Cambodian officials, given EVN’s history along the neighboring Sesan River where thousands of villagers affected by the Yali Falls dam are still waiting for compensation a decade later.