PHNOM PENH — The National Assembly has approved the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Sesan River, renewing concerns of villagers who will be displaced by the dam and of activists who say it will disrupt important fish migrations.
Some 5,000 people will have to be moved once the 8-kilometer dam is built. In the National Assembly last week, opposition lawmakers said they wanted the construction of the Lower Sesan II Dam postponed while more impact assessments are made and while villagers are properly helped in their relocation.
In a Feb. 15 vote, 82 to 8, the Assembly agreed on the law authorizing the government to pay the Hydropower Lower Sesan II Company for construction of the dam. The proposed 400-megawatt dam, to be built 20 kilometers from the provincial capital of Stung Treng province, will see construction begin later this year and will cost $782 million. The Hydropower Lower Sesan II Company is a joint venture between the Royal Group and Chinese and Vietnamese firms.
However, in the session, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Nhem Sovann said the law should not be adopted “until there is a comprehensive study and the participation of the local community.”
Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem responded to the Assembly, saying an impact study has already been undertaken and that the dam would provide social and economic value at minimal cost. Civil society organizations and the opposition dispute this.
According to a 2009 environmental impact assessment, the dam’s reservoir will submerge hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land, displacing around 5,000 people from seven villages. Critics say it could endanger species of fish that migrant along the Sesan River.
Three separate organizations—the NGO Forum, the Culture and Environment Preservation Association and the 3S Rivers Protection Network—said in a joint statement that the law only recognizes six villages and around 800 families, versus the findings of the impact assessment. The NGO Forum says more than 1,300 families will be affected by the dam.
Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, told reporters on the sideline of the Assembly session that the law was not drafted with full consultation of local communities. He also said some statistics provided in the draft do not fully recognize the 2009 assessment. “So wider participation and transparency of the law are limited,” he said.
While the law was being passed, 12 representatives from the local communities around the proposed dam site arrived in Phnom Penh to submit a letter to the Chinese Embassy and the National Assembly, requesting the dam’s construction be postponed, or canceled altogether.
“And [we] requested other power alternatives besides building dams on tributaries,” said Nen Sukit, a representative of the communities, which came from Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces.
So far, there has been no response to the letter.