This article originally appeared in Devex.
STUNG TRENG, Cambodia — Late one night last week, scores of people packed into a wooden home located just meters from the Srepok river. As the rain pounded down, the water rose slowly up the bank. Inside the house, more than a hundred people watched as Yun Lorang spoke.
For days, indigenous minorities from across Cambodia had been trickling into remote Kbal Romeas village in Stung Treng province. The country’s largest hydropower dam, the Lower Sesan 2, had recently begun closing its gates for a test run — sending hundreds of millions of gallons into a 335 squ. kilometers reservoir. The visitors were there to help fight the rising tide.
While more than 4,000 families from Kbal Romeas, nearby Srekor, and elsewhere had already moved to make way for the floodwaters, a handful had refused. Most are members of the Bunong and Kuy indigenous minorities, and have occupied the land for generations. The reasons for resisting have been both person and practical — the land encompasses burial grounds and sacred forests; it is also highly fertile. For generations, those living here have survived off of the fish, farm, and forest.
The dam, however, is set to change all that. Majority funded by China’s behemoth HydroLancang International Energy, the 400 MW Lower Sesan 2 promises to reduce Cambodia’s energy dependence on its neighbors; a means to spurring development in one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. And to do that, people need to make way.
With the floodwaters rising, the government had redoubled its efforts to clear the villages. In March, the last teachers were pulled from local schools — some of which had been reportedly closed for two years. The health centers have long since been shuttered; there are no monks in the pagodas. Cellphones are virtually unusable — within the villages, residents insist the government had cut phone service.
Inside the meeting room, Lorang, a Bunong from Mondulkiri province and the secretary-coordinator of the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance, or CIPA, exhorted those gathered not to lose faith.
“Right now the government and police haven’t forced you 100 percent out. I want to share what I know,” he said.
“People here can’t throw out what they had before. If you leave from here, you will forget all about your religion, you will forget where you come from.”
One by one, a representative from each province stood up.
“The reason I came here is because I’m very hurt. I spent time, money, energy because I want to rescue people here. We all need to help each other, we live in the same land, in the same village, we’re all Khmer,” said Keo Vuthy, from Preah Vihear province.
“When I talk to people here they say they’re not moving out — if they die they prefer to die here, even if police shoot, they’re not moving out,” he added. The group cheered.
Located near the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, key tributaries of the Mekong, the Lower Sesan 2 has been held up by the Cambodian government as a crucial project for development. More than a third of the nation’s electricity is imported, and nearly half of the 15 million population is not yet connected to the grid. In its strategic plans, the government has vowed nationwide electrification by 2020, with 70 percent of rural homes directly hooked up by 2030. With the demand for power forecasted to nearly triple between 2012 and 2020, the country has been on a major push to increase native electricity generation — primarily through coal-fired plants and hydropower.
The $816 million Lower Sesan 2 dam is a cornerstone of that program and a symbol of the country’s development strategy. A joint venture between the Chinese state-held company, holding 51 percent, the Vietnamese state-held company EVN (10 percent), and Royal Group, a company owned by one of Cambodia’s most powerful tycoons, it represents the biggest undertaking to-date. For the next 45 years, EDC, Cambodia’s state-run electricity company, will purchase electricity from the owners. If the company cannot pay, the Cambodian government will provide financial guarantees.
“The dam will help the government to distribute electricity to develop the country. The electricity will attract investors to invest in factories,” Radio Free Asia quoted Suy Sem, minister of industry, mines and energy, saying in 2013 after the ruling party voted in the financial guarantees.
“I am confident that electricity in Cambodia will be improved.”
Since the start, however, opposition has been fierce. To make way for the dam, more than 4,000 families have had to be relocated. Complaints have emerged over the compensation, the quality of replacement land, and the onerous requirements of the relocation villages — where security is omnipresent and residents have reported not being allowed to work outside.
While nearly all hydropower projects come with environmental impacts, those of the Lower Sesan 2 will be particularly acute. The dam’s reservoir area is enormous — 335 squ. kilometers is nearly twice the size of Washington, D.C.
Its location on those key Mekong tributaries, meanwhile, will see the dam block crucial fish migration pathways, cause siltation upstream and nutrient loss downstream. An April 2012, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the dam will lead to a 9.3 percent drop in fish basinwide — four times the loss caused by the second-most impactful dam.
“Our position is that the impacts of the dam are so serious because of the chosen location and other features of dam, that to us it doesn’t make good sense. Either economic sense — because there will be huge losses both economically in terms of the fisheries industry — but also on food security and resulting health issues for local people to lose a vital source of protein,” said Maureen Harris, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia program director.
In Cambodia, a drop in fish stocks is no small matter. Up to eighty percent of the country relies on fish as its primary source of protein, while hundreds of thousands depend on fishing for their direct livelihood. Since construction began three years ago, people living along the Sesan and Srepok rivers have reported a significant decrease in their average fish haul. When the gates are fully closed, the problem will worsen.
All of which has many here in Kbal Romeas wondering: Development for whom?
“The government is building the dam to get more income for the government, not for the villagers. The villagers get poorer and poorer and the money that comes in just goes to the government,” said Sah Voeurn, a 57-year-old from Srekor village and one of the last remaining holdouts.
“It’s development according to one person. The people in urban areas can’t live without electricity. The people here can live without electricity but we can’t live without fishing, without land, without animals.”
With scores of activists and supporters arriving at Kbal Romeas, locals have had their hands full. There are visitors to put up and feed, meetings to attend, and seemingly endless discussion on how to best approach the issue at hand. For several days, Jarap Tong hosted a group of teenage girls from Kompong Thom province. They had come to show solidarity; to help the 39-year-old and her neighbors figure out a way to remain on their land. If need be, they said, they would help her float her house.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. My parents and grandparents as well,” Tong said. “We don’t want to move because our parents and grandparents are dead and buried here. We don’t want to leave them. Even if the water comes and floods, we will live on the water to be with them. That is our belief.”
All throughout the village lay neat piles of freshly-cut bamboo. The residents, visitors and activists say they intend to lash the heavy wood houses to bamboo in an effort to float them as the floodwaters come. From an engineering standpoint, it is almost certain to fail — the houses are massive, solid, stilted constructions made from heavy and high-quality wood. From an optics standpoint, it is captivating.
Apart from CIPA, activists from Mother Nature Cambodia have also taken up residence in the village. Through social media, the group has long brought widespread attention to sensitive environmental issues. Between the two organizations, Facebook has been inundated with videos and photos from these villages — which are so remote they can be reached this time of year only by motorbike and carts dragged by tractors.
The influx of visitors, the strident refusal to leave, the talk of floating homes even as the water rises — all of this has put local officials at deep unease. For weeks now, an increasing number of police and military police have been posted on the roads leading into and out of the village.
Visitors, particularly foreigners or outsiders with no connection to the village, have been told they cannot enter for “safety” reasons. Recently monitors from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner were banned from entering after “local police informed them and all others who wanted to access the area that it was too dangerous considering the accelerated increase in the water level due to the ongoing heavy rains combined with the closed dam gates,” a U.N. statement noted. A day earlier, police stopped, questioned and photographed a Devex journalist before letting them through. By then, scores of villagers had shown up to argue with the police, while several activists streamed the altercation on Facebook.
Though violence has not yet broken out, the situation appears to grow tenser by the day.
Tong, who was particularly fierce in her interaction with the police, said she felt it was “too much.”
“I was really getting angry with the police. I’m not scared, it’s too much from the police. I want to be an example for my children. What villagers have is only their mouth — no knife, no tools for fighting.”
The dam gates are closed; the rainy season is sending heavy deluges across the country. In the holdout villages, the reservoir rises. Over the weekend, floodwaters in Srekor sent two dozen families to higher lands. Officials say they have boats at the ready, should evacuation become necessary.
The groups and residents maintain that they can stay — either in floating homes or in temporary shelters on hills. Armed with maps, the activists insist that only parts of the village will flood and that flooding will be temporary. They say: The land can still be farmed, the paddies will not drown.
If they are forced to leave — by nature or by human hand — most will likely wind up in New Srekor or New Kbal Romeas. The relocation villages are located just off National Road 78. The houses are big, each flanked by electricity lines, water pumps, and toilets. Few of their residents are happy to be there.
Jirup Lai moved four months ago.
“I didn’t want to come, but the water was getting higher and higher and I was afraid, so I moved,” he said.
In exchange for their losses, residents get a house, an equivalent sized plot of land, and a sum of money calculated to how much their crops and orchards were worth. Lai said only 2 of the 5 hectares owed to him proved usable, and even that soil is poor — rocky and sandy; difficult for growing. The $3,700 he received is nearly all gone after buying a motorbike to drive to the distant farmland and a tractor to sow it.
“It’s very difficult for me now. In the old place, it was easy to live — you could earn money and also get food for your daily living. Here, I have to spend $5-7.50 a day [to buy food and daily supplies]. I have no income, and sometimes it’s not enough.”
Though some have said they are happy for the electricity, for the location on a main road, for a big school and health center, more have deemed it to be an unfair deal. Where once they could get everything they needed to eat and survive from the land around them, now residents must pay out of pocket. With villagers reporting that they are not allowed to seek jobs away from the village and farm, access to income is nil. The land is poor, and it is limited. Parents wonder what their children can do when they grow up.
For Lai, who is 60, there is a different aspect of the future to worry about.
“I’m concerned [about] what happens when someone dies and we can’t bury the body,” he said.
“Before I left the old place, I made a small prayer to the ancestors saying that I left, don’t be angry.”
Translation by Heng Sokharany.
This story was written as part of Uncovering Security, a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Stanley Foundation and Gerda Henkel Stiftung.
Abby Seiff is an associate editor for Devex. Based in Asia, she covers a range of issues related to human rights, politics and foreign affairs.