The Sesan and Srepok rivers in Stung Treng Province, seven hours’ drive from the country’s capital Phnom Penh, are two major tributaries of the Mekong. Located near the confluence of the two rivers, the Lower Sesan 2 Dam is now 40 percent complete.
If it begins operation when scheduled in late 2017, it will have a capacity of 400 megawatts that will help satisfy demand for electricity in a country that currently imports much of its power.
The dam is the first overseas investment project undertaken by Hydrolancang, a subsidiary of China Huaneng Group, one of the largest power companies in China.
The project was approved by the Cambodian government in 2012. As a build-operate-transfer project, the ownership of the dam will be transferred to Cambodia after 40 years of operation by Hydrolancang.
However, since the start, it has been dogged by controversies around potential environmental damage and its impact on nearby villagers.
“There are still people who don’t want to move. More than 5,000 people have to be reallocated. It’s not always very clear what the compensation is and it varies depending on the situation and depending on the individuals,” Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, China Program Director of International Rivers, an NGO that closely monitors the biodiversity of rivers and the rights of communities that depend on rivers, told the Global Times.
A 2012 study by US and Cambodian researchers estimates that the dam, once constructed, will reduce fish biomass in the Mekong system by more than 9 percent, because it will obstruct the movement of fish and at least 50 species will face extinction.
Tensions and divisions have sprung up within affected communities among those who want to accept compensation provided by Hydrolancang and those who don’t.
Srekor 1 and 2 villages are among the affected villages along the Sesan River. In 2014, residents sent an open statement to local authorities, demanding the project halt.
In the village, red signs with “LSS2” (abbreviation for Lower Sesan 2) can be seen on some houses, which means those households have already been measured and the owners have agreed to accept compensation and move to resettlement areas. Those who are not willing to move have hung a striking sign on a tree, reading, “We will die in the village even if the dam is built.”
Mekong Sheak, head of Srekor 1 village, told the Global Times that he fears that after the dam is built the area’s deep forests will all be gone and there will be no fish in the river.
Feng Lin, deputy director of the general department of Hydro Power Lower Sesan 2 Co Ltd, a joint enterprise of the Royal Group of Cambodia and China’s Hydrolancang in charge of the dam project, said the company was aware of villagers’ concerns and has designed a fish passage which will allow fish to move freely.
But villagers said they have other concerns.
“We have grandmothers buried in the land. If we leave, they will make us poorer and sick,” said 58-year-old Pha Vy. She was one of the community representatives from Srekor 2 village that favored sending the open statement.
“Their ancestors are very important. They are unhappy if they have to move and leave their ancestors behind. They say somebody would die because the ancestors would punish them. They believe that the forests have spirits. That’s the way they live their lives,” Jensen-Cormier told the Global Times.