Profiles in Courage: Cambodia's Sesan-Srepok-Sekong Rivers Protection Network

Carl Middleton, International Rivers
Thursday, May 1, 2008

When the Sesan River started behaving unusually in late 1996, communities in Northeast Cambodia attributed it to the spirits that they believe in. But something more worldly was at work: just upstream and across the border, construction had begun on the Yali Falls Dam, which would decimate the river they had depended on for generations

For over a decade now, 55,000 villagers from more than ten ethnic minority groups in Cambodia's Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces and many thousands more villagers in Vietnam's central highlands have suffered the loss of rice production and riverbank gardens, drowned livestock, ruined fisheries, poor water quality, and washed away belongings due to the dam. Massive water releases have resulted in flash flooding, causing the deaths of at least 39 people.

Yet, from this grim picture has emerged the Sesan-Srepok-Sekong Protection Network, a determined peoples' movement that strives to defend Northeast Cambodia's rivers and protect community rights. Despite the provinces' remoteness from Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, and reluctance by politicians and the dam's developers to accept the communities' claims or even meet with affected communities, the activities of the network and its allies have firmly placed the cross-border impacts of Vietnam's dams onto the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments' agendas.

"After the Sesan River began to change drastically and there were several unusual floods, the community sent out a request for help from NGOs and the provincial government," explains Meach Mean, Deputy Coordinator of the network. "This led local and international NGOs to initiate a study of the community's suffering, which discovered the Yali Falls Dam as the reason for the downstream changes."

A year later, however, it became disappointingly clear to all concerned that an official solution to the crisis was not forthcoming, and the "Sesan Protection Network" (SPN) was born. "SPN was established in response to the community's concerns, to help communities link together and advocate for themselves," Meach Mean says.

SPN set to work building a network of respected community leaders that could legitimately voice the Sesan communities' concerns and demands. The network grew rapidly. "SPN held regular meetings and trainings with affected communities that focused on teaching communities about their rights, about network building, how to document impacts, how to do advocacy, and how to share their concerns with others," says Meach Mean. By 2004, the network was well established in all 60 villages along the river in Ratanakiri province. A partner community network grew downstream in Stung Treng province.

The SPN secretariat also forged a worldwide coalition of supporters that includes NGOs, lawyers, scientists, photographers, and writers. Their research has reinforced the communities' claims about the downstream impacts from the dam, and proposed frameworks for negotiation and resolution.

As SPN strengthened, it moved rapidly to draw attention to the situation on the Sesan River. At the First National Se San Workshop, in 2002, SPN community representatives publicly announced their demands. These included that the river's natural flow be restored, the dam's impacts studied, compensation provided, and further dam construction halted. This unified statement represented a remarkable achievement under difficult circumstances and marked the communities' first public call for justice.

Yet, Yali Falls was only the first of six dams that Vietnam had slated for the Sesan River, all of which have now been built or are under construction. Furthermore, in 2003, Vietnam commenced construction on a series of four dams on the neighboring Srepok River. Laos also plans extensive hydropower development along the Sekong River and its tributaries (for electricity export to Vietnam) that flows into Northeast Cambodia.

In response to this threat of even more-rampant hydropower development, SPN's movement grew. The original community activists have expanded the network to the Srepok River and built avenues of communication with communities along the Sekong River. The Sesan-Srepok-Sekong Protection Network (3SPN) now represents 74 villages along the Sesan and Srepok rivers.

Engaging the Vietnamese dam builders has, unsurprisingly, been a challenge, not least because in order to do so 3SPN has had to spur into action a reluctant Cambodian government to engage with an equally reluctant Vietnamese government. Even when bilateral government negotiations have taken place, it has proven difficult for the network to secure a seat at the table. Yet, these formidable challenges make the achievements of 3SPN all the more impressive. Both governments have implicitly acknowledged the Yali Falls dam's destructive impacts. In 2002, Vietnam apologized for the destructive water releases of early 2000, and, in 2003, the Cambodian government requested that the Vietnamese government address the downstream impacts.

3SPN has also challenged Western donors complicit in the projects to take responsibility for the downstream impacts. These include the Swedish and Swiss aid agencies that supported Yali Fall's woefully inadequate environmental impact assessment, the World Bank that provided a loan for Yali Fall's transmission line, and Norway's aid agency that supported hydropower master plans for the Sesan and Srepok Rivers.

Concerns voiced by 3SPN and others have prevented both the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation and the Asian Development Bank from backing dams on the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, and also compelled the Vietnamese dam developer, Electricity of Vietnam, to conduct transboundary environmental impact assessments for dam development on both rivers. January 2007 marked an important victory, when the Srepok River's transboundary assessment was presented in a public consultation to the Srepok communities by the dam developers for comment. "This workshop was the first time affected communities could meet directly with dam builders, donors and government representatives," says Meach Mean of 3SPN. "It was also the first time we were able to participate in the EIA process. The community learned a lot about EIAs and were able to comment about the impacts already being experienced and the report's recommended mitigation measures. At the workshop, Vietnam and Cambodia agreed to set up a bilateral task force to help mitigate the impacts. We hope that this will lead to finding solutions to the problems that communities are facing."

Along the Sesan, Srepok, and Sekong Rivers, communities are demanding to be heard. While compensation and redress has not yet been forthcoming, 3SPN has succeeded in challenging unrestrained destructive upstream hydropower development by demanding access to information, the accountability of the dam builders and their supporters, and a decision-making process that includes the genuine participation of affected communities.

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This article appeared in the report "Dams Rivers and People 2008: Bad Deal for the Planet. Why Carbon Offsets Aren't Working... and How to Create a Fair Global Climate Accord," published by International Rivers (May 2008).