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

3S Working Group
Thursday, February 1, 2007

In January 2007, following prolonged calls by Cambodian civil society groups, an official consultation was held on the likely environmental and social impacts to the Srepok River in Cambodia from a cascade of dams under development in Vietnam. Despite the lack of concrete changes resulting from the meeting, many villagers felt the consultation was a step in the right direction.The meeting was, however, unable to dispel many Srepok villagers’ fears that the dams will cause more harm than good.

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 hydro-rush. Over the past decade, communities dependant upon the once abundant resources of the Sesan River have become impoverished following the decimation of the river’s natural wealth due to the construction of the Yali Falls Dam 80 km upstream in Vietnam.

Since 1996, when a coffer dam burst during construction causing a major flood downstream, 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 resulted in at least 39 deaths and average income has plummeted from around $109 to $46 per month. Four other major hydropower projects currently in operation or under construction on the river 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. Ms. 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.

Affected people call for reparation

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, or ‘3S’, working group has determinedly campaigned for reparations and to prevent further destructive hydropower development in the region. While to date 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.

Demanding consultation

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, villagers were for the first time able to express their concerns directly to Vietnamese government officials and the Srepok dams’ developers, 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 for the meeting. He reflected on the damage caused by the Yali Falls Dam, but acknowledged that dams can bring economic development as well. “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 months fieldwork, was inadequate. They said it lacked baseline data, cost-benefit evaluation, detailed mitigation measures, and a review of feasible least-impact alternatives. Ms. Phanny, of Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment EIA Department, said bluntly, “I think it is not a full EIA report. I think it is an initial EIA report. We need to take careful consideration before we proceed.”

Mr. Tore Hagen, team leader of the Norwegian company SWECO Grøner that prepared the report for EVN, shared these concerns. “Within the time limit of our study, it was not possible to do a baseline study that would fit all of the requirements [of a full EIA],” he said. He recommended that if there are resources, further studies for each hydropower project should be carried out over at least a year.

Despite the reports not yet being finalized or released to the public, four out of six planned medium- to large-scale dams are already under construction. Mr. Tep Bunnarith, of the Cambodian NGO Cultural and Environment Preservation Association, asked, “Can those sites under constructions wait until the detailed full EIA is complete, because we have learned from the experience on the Sesan. We hear that there is commitment to cooperate, but we see that the dams are under construction.”

The report has been found to fall short of both Vietnamese and international standards. The EIA does not comply with Vietnam’s 2005 Law on Environmental Protection, which came into effect in July 2006, and states public comment should be taken into account before decisions are taken. Neither does it comply with Sweden’s 2005 guidelines for future and existing dams developed to help Swedish actors apply international “best practice” guidelines for dam building, including on issues of impact assessment, access to information, and promoting benefit-sharing. This despite the fact that both SIDA and SWECO endorsed the guidelines.

EVN’s Vice President, Dr. Lam Du Son, assured Cambodian participants that comments received at the consultation would be incorporated into the final report, and that the final dam in the cascade, Srepok 4, would be operated to minimize downstream impacts. “We realize that we need to improve this report,” he said, but he also declared that hydropower development would continue.

Villagers questioned what benefit Cambodians would receive in return for the negative impacts the upstream dams will cause. “Dams may be good for your country,” said Sin Thong Lao, “but you forget the hardship of the people living downstream. And we are the ones who face the losses.”

Promises made

With the Sesan villagers’ experience in mind, Srepok villager participants urged EVN to guarantee their safety and compensate them for any destruction of homes, crops and 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, negotiation between Cambodia and Vietnam through a 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 Mrs. 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 government 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.

More information: 

Read the Srepok EIA report by SWECO Grøner and an independent assessment of the EIA report.

Read an Assessment of the Swedish funded Environmental Impact Assessment on the Cambodian part of Srepok River due to Hydropower Development in Vietnam against Swedish Guidelines for Dams (prepared by Probe International)

Read the Srepok villagers' community statement on the Srepok EIA meeting (English / Khmer).

Visit the NGO Forum on Cambodia's website.

Download the full World Rivers Review edition.