Cambodian Women Speak Up on Dam's Threat

Women's eNews 4 July  2011

By Amy Lieberman

WeNews correspondent

In Cambodia's rural northeastern province, the Sesan River is the primary source of food and income for fishing and farming communities. But hydropower dams are encroaching and village women say their daily life is hit the hardest.

RATANAKIRI PROVINCE, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)–-The Cambodian government has not yet secured funding for Lower Sesan 2, a 750 megawatt, $650 million dam that would export electricity to Vietnam and become the largest hydropower dam in Cambodia.

With plans underway, though, some women in the deeply spiritual nine ethnic indigenous communities of Ratanakiri Province, 10 hours north of Phnom Penh, are braced for the worst.

Ratanakiri residents along the Sesan river support themselves by fishing and farming, both subject to drastic disruption by the project. The dam is expected to impinge on fish migration and flood surrounding farmland.

On Si Kan is "spirit chief" of her community of about 250, a position typically held by Lao ethnic women who channel male spirits. She has already given up any thought of fighting the dam, planned for 80 miles downstream.

"I tell people we can do nothing to stop the project. The government will build the dam," said On, 57, through a Khmer translator. "So the people can wait for the dam to come and they can die in the floods it will cause, or they can move away from the river."

At the same time as women such as On are resigned, others are leading community opposition, says Ian Baird, a University of Wisconsin, Madison, professor of geography and fisheries. Baird has worked in the region for more than 25 years.

"When people from Ratanakiri come down to Phnom Penh to talk, many of them are really intimidated," he said. "But it's the women who are asking the most powerful questions, even as everyone is 100-percent afraid to speak out."

Ratanakiri representatives attended a national consultation on Sesan 2 at the end of May in Phnom Penh where the environmental minister, Prach Sun, highlighting project benefits.

"It will help bring Cambodia development and reduce poverty," Prach said. "This will contribute to the resources of Cambodia and to its people. That is the most important thing."

Distrusting the Process

Hor Voy South, a 56-year-old mother of eight, is a community organizer for 3S Rivers Protection Network, or 3SPN, which supports communities threatened by hydropower dams in northeastern Cambodia. She attended the consultation in Phnom Penh and says she doubts the meeting will help.

"The community talks and the government listens, but nothing changes," she said. "We say, 'We don't want the government to build the dam here,' but we think they will build it anyway."

The sense of powerlessness among communities of Ratanakiri Province, 10 hours north of Phnom Penh, derives from what happened after another dam was built on the same river.

Yali Falls, a 720 megawatt hydropower dam, was established in 1996 on a part of the Sesan that is in central Vietnam, approximately 100 miles upstream from Ratanakiri.

The Yali construction caused flooding of land hundreds of miles away and hindered the migratory passage of the fish locals depended on for food and income.

Hydropower dams are sprouting up across Southeast Asia. Twenty seven are now operating in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia; nine are being built and 14 are proposed. Hydropower dams produce one of the most common forms of renewable electricity, while releasing a very low rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

They also create havoc to traditional livelihoods. Upstream, the rivers back up and cause flooding. Downstream, the water volume is constrained, threatening aquatic life.

Water around hydro-dams is also prone to producing algae that can be poisonous or degrade water qualities in other ways.