Over 200 people gathered on Friday from across Cambodia to join in a campaign against the construction of the Don Sahong Dam, which has been ongoing in the past month on one of the major channels of the Mekong at the Cambodia-Lao border. The campaign, organized by the WWF and Fishery Action Coalition Team, took place at Preah Rumkel, just south of the construction site in Laos.
Its participants, farmers and community leaders from as far as Ratanakiri and Battambang, spoke not only of fears for the future, but also of the devastating effects of previous hydropower dams on Cambodia’s rivers.
“After they built the dam, there were huge floods in my village,” said Fai Sot, 60, an inhabitant of the Voeun Sai district of Ratanakiri. “The floods took our cows, our water buffaloes, our chickens, and our ducks. They swept away canoes. Trees fell in the floodwaters and destroyed fish nests. We lost our fish.”
Ms. Sot’s village is nearly 100 kilometers from the Yali dam, a Vietnamese hydropower project completed in 1995.
Her community has felt the effects of this project ever since then, she said. Fang village has experienced four years with devastating floods.
“It is really hard to live, now,” she said. “Rice prices and fish prices have gone up, more and more, because of the dam. Rice is 3,000 riel per kilogram—it used to be 100. As for fish—20,000 riel. There is no fish.”
This Ratanakiri story sharpened the fears of many participating in the campaign, some of whom say that they are feeling the effects of the dam’s early construction already.
“There have been effects on our community [from the Don Sahong dam] already,” says Sun Rot, commune chief of O Svay, four kilometers south of the dam site. “There’s rotting material, pollution in the water, and sometimes it burns our skin – awe get rashes.”
Although only 10 percent of the 600 or so families in his community are fishermen, Mr. Rot explained that the effects of the construction of Don Sahong would come to reach everyone in the commune.
“We’ll lose the dolphins, and a lot of our large fish. But, beyond this, the water will rise and fall irregularly, and without water, we may not be able to grow our rice.
The stagnant water from above the dam can carry diseases, and this will especially affect our children and our elders.”
Meanwhile, Un Chakrey, of the WWF, and Koich Pirak, deputy governor of the Thala Barivat district of Stung Treng, emphasized the potential effect of the dam on Cambodia’s rare Irawaddy dolphins, four of which swim in the deep pools at Ochheuteal.
“Tourists come to see the dolphins,” said Pirak. “But, if there are no dolphins any more, what will the tourists do?”
Farmers and community leaders from hundreds of kilometers away, however, say that the effects of Don Sahong will reach far beyond the livelihoods of river dwellers and those in the tourism industry in Stung Treng.
Chun Lan, a farmer from Siem Reap, spoke of the effect that damming the Mekong will have on the Tonle Sap, and the lives of those depending on it.
“It will destroy the fish migrations, and the large fish that must travel up the Mekong to spawn will die. The big fish species may well go extinct,” she said. Many of the large fish in the Tonle Sap migrate up the Mekong, she said, as a necessary part of their life cycle – they spawn far upstream.
Furthermore, she said, the changing water levels caused by the dam might well interfere with the yearly cycle of the Tonle Sap – without a strong Mekong current, the river’s waters may change direction far too late, or not at all.
“The waters, when they climb, let certain other fish spawn in flooded forests,” she said. “But, if they don’t climb far enough or soon enough, the fish won’t have time to spawn. We will lose them.”
The waters’ changing course could also affect rice crops all around the lake, she added, worsening the livelihoods of some hundreds of thousands of people.