Still Far Apart on Damsby Johanna ( )
PHNOM PENH, Jan 14 (Newsmekong) - Forty-six year-old Chao Chantha, one of 10 community representatives from the north-eastern Cambodian province of Stung Treng, took many deep breaths, sighing as officials of the Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) fielded questions at the meeting to discuss Vietnam's plans to build more dams across the border.
"We have no hope that Vietnam would give any compensation to Cambodian people affected by their dams," Chantha said at 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 hydro consultants and state-owned EVN met with affected residents and non-government groups here.
"Since 2004, we have been experiencing unnatural floods two to three times a year. We are aware that the floods are caused by from hydroelectricity dams built upstream in Vietnam," Chantha explained, referring to construction activity that started in 2003 around what is projected to be a set of dams in the Srepok river basin.
Chantha says that in her village in Banmei, 83 families are being negatively affected by the dams over in Vietnam, since the Srepok flows into Cambodia. For two years, releases of water have unleashed floods that cause rice plants to rot and wreck harvests. Their livelihoods undercut, most residents are being forced to go to other provinces and work in the garment or construction industries. A few families have decided to stick it out, but their fields are flooded and decay two to three times per year.
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 my villagers and I could not have enough time to prevent our cows, pigs, chickens and ducks from being carried away by the water. . . and now we have nothing to eat."
In Rattanakkiri and Stung Treng (provinces), 11,000 villagers living along the Srepok River have been facing negative impacts from the hydropower development for the Srepok River basin, said Bean Sokun, dialogue project officer for 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. Villagers affected by those water changes, including from the Yali Falls dam, are still awaiting compensation. The Srepok and SesanrRivers merge some 30 kilometres east of Stung Treng.
In August-September 2006, 3SPN, a group that have banded together in the wake of the impact of the cross-border dams, reported that villages, houses, schools, pagodas, and roads had already been seriously inundated by the dammed Srepok River's fast-moving water.
In mid-September, over 1,000 hectares of rice fields in Rattanakkiri were underwater, the group added.
But EVN Vice President Lam Du Son told the 20 community representatives coming from Rattanakkiri and Stung Treng, NGOs and others at the meeting here that the dams in Vietnam have not yet caused problems to Cambodians living downstream.
"We have not yet completed the dam to curb the Srepok River's water, so our hydropower projects have not yet caused the quality of the water," said Du Son, referring to the fact that the dam project does not yet store water. "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 megawatts), Buontua Srha (86 mw), Srepok 3 (220 mw) and Draylinh (28 mw). Another two 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 the state-owned EVN.
Do Son's remarks did not satisfy Tep Bunnarith, executive director of the non-government 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 occur in the dry season."
But while the two sides stood by their position, perhaps the fact that a face-to-face venue was held on the issue at all was by itself quite important.
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 Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen said, no one benefits, no one loses," said Mok Mareth, senior minister and minister of environment, and vice chair of the the Cambodia National Mekong Committee. "And if after we discuss, we could not find any way to reduce impacts, that means the impact remains serious, and that plan (for hydropower development) would not be continued."
A draft version of the EIA report, Cambodian NGOs say, already predicted 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 this week's meeting, the representatives of the Srepok communities aired more concerns. They requested that the issues such as irregular water fluctuation, water quality and human and animal health be addressed. Beyond that, they sought a suspension of dam construction on the Srepok River, compensation from dam builders, a stop to financing dam projects if there is no people's participation, clear and social and environmental assessment 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 Vice President Lam 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's EIA on the Cambodian part of the Srepok River is a "rapid EIA report". His work 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. (END/IMekong/SR/JS/140107)