Villagers remain defiant as Sesan Dam waters rise

31 July 2017 Cambodia

KT/Mai TittharaKT/Mai Titthara

Fort Kheun is one of a number of people who refused to leave his village and home as the new Lower Sesan dam was being constructed.

But as he spoke to Khmer Times on Friday, he was preparing to take his family and property to a safer place as water rose around his village due to tests being run by the company behind the dam.

His home is in Sre Ko village, which is along the southern banks of the Sesan River in Stung Treng province.

Mr Kheun is one of many residents who refused compensation to relocate and make way for the huge reservoir that will stretch behind the Lower Sesan River Dam after it is built.

The dam is on the Se Kong River, downstream from the confluence of the Sesan and Sre Pok rivers, about 25 kilometres before the Se Kong enters the Mekong River.

Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2019 at a total estimated cost of $816 million. Three companies are involved in the dam: Cambodia’s Royal Group owns 39 percent, China’s Hydrolancing International Energy has a 51percent stake and Vietnam’s EVN International owns 10 percent.

A woman packs her belongings and gets gets ready to move. KT/May TittharaA woman packs her belongings and gets gets ready to move. KT/May Titthara

When it is complete it will generate 400 megawatts of power, which will supply five provinces with electricity – Stung Treng, Kampong Cham, Kratie, Preah Vihear, and Ratanakkiri, ending their dependence on electricity from Laos.

On July 26, Stung Treng provincial hall alerted villagers in Kbal Romeas and Sre Ko communes that severe floods might be coming due to a combination of two factors.

Firstly, the Lower Sesan II dam had closed its gates for technical tests, and secondly, heavy rainfall was expected to spread to the communes.

“Cooperate with local authorities to move to a safe place,” officials told residents. “Transport your belongings for safe-keeping as well.”

As the dam continues to be tested, parts of the future reservoir are being flooded – including where Mr Kheun and his family live.

“If the flood comes over my home, I will use my boat to relocate my family to live at my ancestor’s spirit area, about one kilometre from my village,” he said.

Mr Kheun is one of the more outspoken critics of the dam that will displace 5,000 people to supply electricity to five provinces.

The concrete road and access to his village has been blocked by police and the military at five points to stop other villagers, NGO staff and the media from getting inside the area. Police there say they are providing security for people in the village.

“Dam test? Why block us?” Mr Kheun asked angrily. “You cannot block us and force us to die. We can survive ourselves.”

Mr Kheun said he will fight to live in his village forever and his villagers will not accept the compensation being offered.

The companies building the dam should use that money to help people who have already relocated to a new place, he said. “They try to block all the people, like vendors, and other people from other communities who they don’t allow to come to my village,” he said.

“My tears flowed when I saw the authorities did not allow others to get inside and they forced them to walk back in the rain. They did not allow taxis to pick up them up.”

Mr Kheun said despite the clampdown on the roads leading into the village, the people there know how to survive by using their boats.

“Now they try to make us have a shortage of food and petrol, but we have many ways to get that,” he said. “We can use the waterways to buy things at the market.”

The village now has a new slogan: “Dare to die in a village with a dam.” This was first inscribed on a wooden plank, but variations have spread from home to home and also to the village pagoda.

The water levels in the area increased very quickly over the weekend. By early on Saturday morning, the village was flooded and all the people there were preparing to take their animals and food to a higher, safer place.

Mr Kheun said in the village of Sre Ko there were 115 families who declined to accept the compensation offered to move, and in nearby Kbla Romeas there were still 58 families. 

“Officials’ mouths speak out to protect us, but their brains protect the companies because they get their money from the companies,” Mr Kheun said. “You have not come to protect us, you come to threaten us.”

Mr Kheun said police had tried to arrest outspoken people like himself, but a lot of villagers came to help and the police did not arrest anyone.

They have now changed tactics to block people going into the area, he said.

“I know if they arrest me some people will accept the offer of compensation, but they are wrong if they think we have a ringleader – we are all outspoken,” he said.

“If they release all the water our whole house will be flooded, so we would have to move to live in our ancestors’ spirit area. If our houses are not flooded we will sleep here,” he added.

“They just want to take over our land and can you imagine how you would feel if you ignored your ancestors’ spirit? I am a human being. I cannot forget my ancestors.”

Early on Saturday morning, Van Oun was busy trying to get his animals to a higher place. He wondered why the police had blocked people and did not allow anyone to get into the village on a public road.

Mr Oun said that when people went out of their village they had to tell the police the purpose of their travel.

Villagers pack a tractor with food and clothes. KT/May TittharaVillagers pack a tractor with food and clothes. KT/May Titthara

“They say they want to protect our security, but I think they don’t want other people knowing the news about the flooding in our commune,” he said.

Mr Oun added that local food prices have increased, leaving him wondering if authorities are behind a despicable scheme to force people out.

“We are human beings, we need food to survive,” he said. “What the government officials did to us is illegal and they do not protect us – they are forcing us to die in the village.”

Mr Oun said there had been a lot of pressure from officials to relocate, but many people had refused to leave.

“We have lived on the river since we were born, so the water is our life,” he said. “We are not afraid of flooding.” 

He added that in case the flooding reached the top of villagers’ houses, they would move to live in Ktom Neakta, the place of their ancestors’ spirits, which is about one kilometre from the village. When the water levels drop, people will return to live in their village, he said.

Mr Oun pointed to four boats that had been joined to make one large boat.

“In Sre Ko, we have prepared a big boat for transportation and all the houses have small boats,” he said. “In Kbal Romeas, they prepared bamboo for floating houses, so the company and government officials please use whatever strategy you want to use on us.”

Villager Thoring, 50, had five children in his boat and had made a floating bamboo cottage for his family if the water levels went over his house.

“It’s natural for it to flood and it’s not serous like in 2012, so villagers here are not afraid of a flood and people here have already prepared for any emergency,” he said.

“We are not worried about the dam. We are fine and will continue fighting to live in our old village.”

In 2013, the Alliance for Conservation of Fisheries released a report that said when the Lower Sesan 2 Hydro Dam was launched, it would cause the fish volume in the Mekong and Tonle Sap basins to drop by about 10 percent.

It would also reduce the flow of silt to about eight percent, the report said. The report claimed the dam not only affected tens of thousands of people living along the Mekong, but it would have a great impact on livelihoods and food security.

While putting small coconut trees on his boat to take to a safer place, Vy Thy, 32, said the flooding could make life difficult, but he never thought about moving to a new place.

“Don’t worry, we can swim to safety when it’s flooding,” he said. “We will not let our families die. We have lived on the river for a long time, so why worry about this flood?”

Company representative Om Reth could not be reached for comment, but he told local media that when the company closes all the gates for testing the villages may be flooded even further.

“We will temporarily stop the closing of the gates if the level of water continues to increase and seriously affects villages,” he said.