Villagers Oppose More Dams in Vietnam

Sam Rith
Sunday, January 14, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Jan 14 (IPS) - Chao Chantha, one of 10 community representatives from the north-eastern Cambodian province of Stung Treng became agitated as officials of the Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) fielded questions at a meeting called to discuss the neighbouring country's plans to build more dams on its side of the border.

''We have no hope that Vietnam will give any compensation to Cambodian people affected by their dams,'' Chantha, 46, said on the sidelines of the Jan. 12 meeting.

Cambodian activists say this was the first time in more than a decade of Nordic aid-backed hydro-planning along rivers shared by Vietnam and Cambodia that Nordic consultants and the state-owned EVN met with affected residents and non-government organisations (NGOs).

''Since 2004, we have been experiencing unnatural floods two to three times a year. We are aware that the floods are caused by hydroelectric dams built upstream in Vietnam,'' Chantha explained, referring to construction activity that started in 2003 for a series of dams in the Srepok river basin.

Chantha says that in her village in Banmei, 83 families are already negatively affected by dams across the Srepok that flows into Cambodia. For two years, releases of water have unleashed floods that caused rice plants to rot. Their livelihoods affected, most residents are being forced to go to other provinces and find work in the garment or construction industries. A few families have decided to stick it out, but their crops are ruined by repeated flooding.

Thun Bunhean, who comes from Deilo village in Lumpat district in Rattanakkiri, said: ''During last year's floods, the water flowed very fast so that we did not have enough time to prevent our cows, pigs, chickens and ducks from being carried away by the waterà and now we have nothing to eat.''

In the Rattanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces, 11,000 villagers living along the Srepok have been facing negative impacts from hydropower development of the river basin, said Bean Sokun, dialogue project officer for the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong Rivers Protection Network (3SPN).

Many fear that the Srepok projects will bring the same environmental and economic impact from that others experienced from the time dam projects began in the basin of the Se San river, a Mekong tributary shared by Vietnam and Cambodia, a decade ago. The affected villagers, including from the Yali Falls dam, are still awaiting compensation. The Srepok and Sesan rivers merge some 30 km east of Stung Treng.

In August-September 2006, 3SPN, a group banded together in the wake of the adverse impact of the cross-border dams, reported that villages, houses, schools, pagodas, and roads have already been inundated by fast-moving waters from the dammed Srepok.

In mid-September, over 1,000 hectares of rice fields in Rattanakkiri were submerged, the group added.

But EVN vice president Lam Du Son told the 20 community representatives from Rattanakkiri and Stung Treng, NGOs and others at the meeting here that the dams in Vietnam cannot yet have caused problems to Cambodians living downstream.

''We have not yet completed the dam to curb the Srepok river's water,'' said Du Son, referring to the fact that the dam does not yet store water and does not impact flow yet. "Last year's floods might have been caused by storms -- not the dams."

Plans for hydropower projects on the Srepok river basin upstream in Vietnam include four dams -- the Buon Kuop (280 Mw), Buontua Srha (86 Mw), Srepok 3 (220 Mw) and Draylinh (28 Mw). Two other projects are at the feasibility study stage, such as Srepok 4 (70 Mw) and Duc Xuyen (49 Mw), according to Luong Van Dai, director of appraisal for EVN.

Do Son's remarks did not satisfy Tep Bunnarith, executive director of the NGO Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA). "What he (Lam Du Son) replied was just his ideas, it is not factual information that he collected from the people who are the victims. In nature, floods happen in the rainy season, but recently the floods occurred in the dry season.''

While the two sides stuck to their respective positions, the fact that a face-to-face venue was held on the issue is an indicator of the gravity of the issue.

The Jan. 12 meeting was actually called to take up the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report done by the consulting firm SWECO Groner with funding from Swedish and Norwegian aid agencies, Sida and Norad.

''This discussion is to strengthen cooperation between the two countries by finding ways to keep the environmental impact to the minimum -- as the speech of Prime Minister Hun Sen said, no one benefits, no one loses," said Mok Mareth, minister for environment, and vice chair of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee. ''And if after we discuss, we cannot find any way to reduce impacts, that means the impact remains serious, and that the plan (for hydropower development) would not be continued.''

A draft version of the EIA report, Cambodian NGOs say, predicts major changes for people living along the river on the Cambodian side of the border, ranging from unpredictable water fluctuations, riverbank erosion, water pollution and impact on fish migration. The EIA report is part of Vietnam's master plan study that looks into potential dam sites in the country.

But at the Jan 12 meeting, representatives of the Srepok communities sought a suspension of dam construction, compensation from dam builders, and a stop to the financing of dam projects that had no people's participation and EIA processes. If dams are ultimately built upstream, they would like a notification system for water releases and fluctuations to be set up for Cambodian communities.

"We are still concerned that the draft EIA report would get approval from the two governments when they do not agree with our recommendations on what's lacking in the report," said Bunnarith. ''Our other concern is that Vietnam would not pay any compensation to Cambodians who are the victims of the dams because when we asked Vietnam about that, they replied that hydropower development is the important agenda of the three governments (Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao)."

EVN's Du Son pledged that his government would implement dam projects with bilateral agreements, follow international treaties, look to having the citizens of Vietnam and Cambodia gain income, reduce environment impact and improve the Srepok EIA report.

Tore Hagen, vice president of SWECO Groner, acknowledged that his Company could only manage a ‘'rapid EIA report'' on the Cambodian part of the Srepok. His team spent only a few weeks in Rattanakkiri and Stung Treng in November 2005. "To complete the EIA report, it takes at least one more year because the work force needs to research during different seasons in Cambodia," explained Hagen.

(*Newsmekong is a news site focusing on reporting on Mekong issues, coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific. It is also the news site of the 'Imaging Our Mekong' media fellowship programme.) (END/2007)