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Cambodian dam a ‘disaster’ for local communities, rights group says

Children play in the Sesan River

  • Rights activists allege that a Chinese-financed hydroelectric project in northeastern Cambodia has been a human rights “disaster” after it displaced nearly 5,000 Indigenous and ethnic minority people.
  • In a recent report, advocacy group Human Rights Watch says communities were largely coerced into accepting inadequate compensation and provided with substandard resettlement arrangements.
  • The scheme also had wide-ranging environmental impacts, affecting fishery yields across the wider Mekong Basin and flooding vast areas of forest.
  • The report highlights the humanitarian and environmental shortcomings of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is advancing many similar projects across Africa and Asia.

The Lower Sesan 2 hydroelectric scheme was completed in northeast Cambodia in 2018. The reservoir flooded 300 square kilometers (116 square miles) upstream of the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two tributaries of the Mekong. Villages, places of worship, ancestral burial grounds and forests were submerged, and nearly 5,000 people were displaced.

A recent report from U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch last week assessed the impact of the Chinese-financed project as a human rights “disaster” for the communities that lost their homes and livelihoods.

“The Lower Sesan 2 dam washed away the livelihoods of Indigenous and ethnic minority communities who previously lived communally and mostly self-sufficiently from fishing, forest-gathering, and agriculture,” John Sifton, HRW Asia advocacy director said in a statement.

The villages of Bunong, Kuoy, Lao, Jarai, Kreung and Tampuon minorities were permanently flooded to make way for the dam’s reservoir. The project “profoundly harmed local communities, leaving them poorer and worse off,” says the report, which cites interviews conducted over two years with 60 community members, civil society leaders, academics, scientists and researchers. “It has caused massive damage to the ecology of rivers upstream and downstream of the project, resulting in major losses in fisheries populations.”

Prior to completion, fisheries experts had warned that damming the confluence of the rivers would threaten fish stocks and fragile farming ecosystems on which millions living along the Mekong’s course depend. A 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said fish stocks were expected to drop by more than 9% across the Mekong Basin as a result of the project.

The impact on fisheries is significant, since the Mekong River accounts for one-fifth of the world’s freshwater fish catch, providing dietary protein for tens of millions of people in mainland Southeast Asia.

The 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 dam is the largest in Cambodia and part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive multinational infrastructure project begun under President Xi Jinping in 2013. The reportedly $800 million hydropower project was funded by Chinese banks and built by China Huaneng Group, a state-owned electricity company that holds the majority stake and also operates the scheme. Other investors include Cambodia’s Royal Group and Vietnam’s state-owned electricity company, EVN.

Bunong ethnic minority children from Kbal Romeas village in northeast Cambodia celebrate the International Day of Action for Rivers in March, 2015. By 2018, the village was submerged by the reservoir of the Lower Sesan 2 dam. Image by International Rivers via Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Concerns largely ignored

Like many other BRI projects, the Lower Sesan 2 dam has provoked controversy over lack of transparency, disregard for community concerns, and negative environmental impacts.

According to HRW, the Cambodian authorities and private companies involved failed to consult affected communities adequately and to obtain their free, prior and informed consent, as specified in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The company didn’t consider Indigenous rights,” one Bunong villager told HRW. “They just told us to move.”

Throughout the project’s construction, community members raised appeals to Cambodian authorities, but were “largely ignored.” Objectors were subject to intimidation, “threatened or even jailed,” the HRW report said.

The communities living in the pathway of the dam were not just worried about saving the river and fish populations; they wanted to preserve their cultures, sacred forests and ancestral grounds.

“Rivers create a lot of culture, including our annual boat festivals, the ancient belief in water spirits, Buddhist water blessings, and the national diet,” Meach Mean, the founder and director of 3S Rivers Protection Network, a grassroots organization that campaigned with local communities to oppose the project, told Mongabay in 2017. “If the dam is built it will stop our culture, not just our fish.”

Despite widespread local opposition, the Cambodian government pushed ahead with the project, which aims to generate about one-sixth of the country’s electricity needs. But production levels are “likely far lower, amounting to only a third of those levels,” the HRW report said.

Furthermore, the environmental benefits of the hydropower scheme have been called into question. A 2017 study in Environmental Research Letters estimates that the project has a carbon dioxide emission rate per megawatt hour comparable to natural gas plants, in part due to decomposing vegetative matter submerged by the vast reservoir.

As the development proceeded, people who were moved to make way for the dam were “coerced into accepting inadequate compensation” and provided with poor housing and land ill-suited to farming at resettlement sites, the report says. Nor were they provided with training in other ways to earn a living.

However, Cambodian authorities deny that villagers have been adversely impacted. “The indigenous and minority communities will share the benefit of these developments,” Siphan Phay, a government spokesman, told the Financial Times. “Their livelihoods will be integrated into main society — health, education and other norms of modern ways of life.”

The project’s detrimental effects can still be addressed, said the report, through new compensation assessments and provision of services and training for affected communities.

“Cambodian authorities need to urgently revisit this project’s compensation, resettlement, and livelihood-restoration methods, and ensure that future projects don’t feature similar abuses,” Sifton said, adding that the government “needs to reform its laws to require meaningful impact assessments for development projects.”

The 75-meter tall Lower Sesan 2 dam encloses a reservoir that spans 300 square kilometers. Image by Prachatai via Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Rivers increasingly under threat

The HRW report highlights wider concerns over the dam-building activities of China’s BRI project, which has more than 10 large Chinese hydropower projects underway or completed in countries across Asia and Africa.

“There is no evidence that the Chinese government ever imposed any obligations on the Chinese and Cambodian companies who built the dam to follow international and corporate social responsibility standards or provide adequate compensation for harms the project caused, or even standards that would apply had the dam been built in China,” the HRW report concludes.

London-based watchdog, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), which monitors company-linked human rights abuses worldwide, last week shed more light on the consequences of China’s BRI scheme for marginalized communities. According to the BHRRC report, nearly one-third of alleged human rights abuses committed between 2013 and 2020 took place in Southeast Asia, with many of the allegations linked to Chinese ventures in metalworks, mining, fossil fuels and construction.

Meanwhile, a recent study in Global Sustainability says that free-flowing rivers are increasingly under threat from hydropower developments worldwide. Dams and reservoirs are the leading cause of loss of watercourse connectivity. The study found that all proposed dams on free-flowing rivers would collectively generate less than 2% of the renewable energy needed by 2050 to keep global temperature increase below 1.5o Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit). The authors say this spotlights the trade-off between hydropower and maintaining healthy freshwater ecosystems.

“Rivers are powerful agents for keeping wildlife and communities healthy, especially in a warming climate, yet their ability to support life is threatened by hydropower dams in many parts of the world,” Michele Thieme, lead freshwater scientist at WWF and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The best policy solutions will be those that balance renewable energy needs with the many benefits of thriving freshwater ecosystems.”

Banner Image: Children play in the Sesan River several years prior to the hydropower development. Image by International Rivers via Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Ziv, G., Baran, E., Nam, S., Rodriguez-Iturbe, I., & Levin, S. A. (2012). Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(15), 5609-5614. doi:10.1073/pnas.1201423109

Räsänen, T. A., Varis, O., Scherer, L., & Kummu, M. (2018). Greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower in the Mekong River basin. Environmental Research Letters13(3), 034030. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aaa817

Thieme, M., Tickner, D., Grill, G., Carvallo, J., Goichot, M., Hartmann, J., … Opperman, J. (2021). Navigating trade-offs between dams and river conservation. Global Sustainability4. doi:10.1017/sus.2021.15


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