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Proposed Dam a Mystery, Concern to Kratie Locals

A fishing boat floats on the Mekong river at Sambor in Cambodia's Kratie Provice, a site chosen for a proposed 18-kilometer hydro-dam.

Later this month, a major report assessing the pros and cons of 11 proposed mainstream hydro-dams in the lower Mekong region will be publicized by the Mekong River Commission. The report will include information about two hydro-dams across the Mekong River in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

Although no decision has been made by the Cambodian government on the proposals, local people know little about the plans and are concerned their voices will be left out.

Sours Ve, a 38-year-old farmer and guest house operator in Sambor district, is among them. On a recent morning, she said goodbye to a group of tourists from the US, who had staid with her under a home stay system. The community-based tourism project has boosted her annual income, but she says she's worried she'll lose her home if a dam is built across the river here.

In 2007, a Chinese survey team arrived at her house and placed a concrete marker on her property. Were the megadam to go forward, it will fall directly across her property, creating behind it a 86-kilometer-long reservoir.

“I asked them what they were surveying, and they told me that they were going to build a hydrodam, and they put in this post on my land,” she said, standing over the marker behind her wooden stilt house after the tourists had gone.

“We learned that this was a study by a hydrodam construction company, but whether they will build the dam or not, we don't know,” she said. “And our people started to worry, not knowing when the dam will be built.”

Government officials say it is premature for anyone to worry about a dam here. They say the 18-kilometer dam that has been proposed for Sambor is only one of several options they will discuss in coming meetings.

The proposed dam, currently being studied by China Southern Power Grid, is one of 11 dams being considered by lower Mekong countries Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Experts say these dams can be more problematic than their upper Mekong cousins, because down here, the land is flat, which require giant dams and reservoirs.

Critics say the dams will do more than put people like Sours Ve off their land. They can also be damaging to fisheries and the river's ecology. In Sambor district, there is little information, but plenty of concern.

“We heard rumors that if it is built, it will be massive, and 56 meters tall,” said Sours Ve, who recently traveled to Phnom Penh to learn more about the project and to Ratanakkiri province to see the effects of a Vietnamese dam on the Sesan river.

Locals on a Mekong inland at Sambor, Kratie province see off foreign tourists. A proposed mega hydrodam at the site would completely inundate the island if constructions go ahead.
Locals on a Mekong inland at Sambor, Kratie province see off foreign tourists. A proposed mega hydrodam at the site would completely inundate the island if constructions go ahead.

She is among the most informed people in her community.

“We know that if the project goes ahead, we'll have to relocate,” she said. “And we locals became worried because we don't know when they'll come, and no one can give us an answer.”

Ith Praing, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said concerns like these are so far unfounded. Sambor's potential for a dam has been studied since at least 1964, he said, so this is only the latest study.

“And up until now we haven’t made any decision on the proposal, pending [a more comprehensive] study, to decide whether there is really hydropower potential and what the [negative] impacts are,” he said.

Kratie Governor Kham Khoeun told VOA Khmer he was aware of the study, but not the extent of it. He agreed that concerns right now are premature because studies on ongoing.

At the Sambor district fish market, which according to maps would sit just below the proposed megadam, little is known about the study.

A 33-year-old fish monger who gave her name as Adik said she'd never heard of it.
Nearby, 54-year-old vendor Nhoung Sokkhim said she'd seen the Chinese during the field study in 2007, but knew little more.

“I saw the Chinese come with their machines, but I haven't seen any construction,” she said. “I only saw them bringing metallic devices further up near the pagoda. There was no explanation of what is going on. No one knows, not even the local authorities.”

Indeed, Sambor District Chief Heng Sotha told VOA Khmer all he knew about the proposal came from local people.

“I am unaware of the details of the plan,” he said. “There are no official documents informing me about this.”

Ith Praing said there was no need to worry that people's input would not be part of the decision. The government plans to take the proposal's negative impacts very seriously, he said, adding that local authorities have in the past been invited to Phnom Penh to discuss the dam.

As proposed, according to a draft report of the Mekong River Commission, the Sambor hydrodam would flood 620 square kilometers, including 3,369 hectares of agricultural land and be operational by 2020.

For Sours Ve, the trade-off won't be worth it.

“These days, we no longer want electricity if it means having to relocate,” she said.
“It's possible for us to move, but what about the bones of our ancestors? They'll be flooded, and nothing will remain.”