About 70 ethnic minority families who declined to move to land offered by the government when their village was flooded by the new Lower Sesan II dam rushed to move their belongings to higher ground last week as the rising waters engulfed their houses.
For the people in Stung Treng province’s Sesan district, the battle to stay on their traditional land has been a long one, and it’s far from over.
As the new dam becomes operational, quickly rising water in the area has flooded their houses in Sre Ko commune, forcing them to scramble to gather their belongings and move to a new location.
The water level last week reached the roofs of the houses of the last families in the commune, who declined to accept the compensation offered by the Lower Sesan II dam company.
The families rushed to transport their farming equipment and belongings to higher ground, where they will live temporarily, but they have yet to decide whether to establish a new village on higher ground.
The rising water levels have covered many of their houses, the local pagoda and school and caused damage to crops, so the villagers were busy late last week taking what they could by boat to higher ground about a kilometre from their old village.
One of those villagers was Fort Kheun. He said the water rose so quickly that some villagers did not have time to move their belongings. Some families suffered damaged to their furniture, their houses, their rice and their animals.
Seated on a boat with sadness in his eyes, Mr Kheun said: “The company and authorities tried many ways to get us us to leave our old village, and now we are moving to live separate from each other.
“Me, I live on my farmland, other families live on their ancestors’ spirit land,” he added. “We will request the authorities to allow us to live here because we don’t want to move to the new place that the company provided for us.”
In the now-flooded Sre Ko commune, the road to access the village used to be accessible by motorbike, but now people have to use boats. The 70 families who declined to accept compensation from the company have said they do not want to move to the land the company has offered them.
Mr Kheun said: “Now we do what the company and authorities wanted – we have moved and we will live nearby about one or two kilometres away and we will wait to see if in three months the water level drops. If it does, we will come back to live in our village.
“But if the water level is still high, we will have to decide to ask the company and the authorities to allow us to live here. We cannot move to the new place.”
It was very quiet along the road to access the village, but at times the shouting of villagers could be heard as they called each other for help.
The school near their ancestors’ spiritual place was occupied by police, who were checking on people going in and out of the village.
Mr Kheun said many of the villagers who had moved from the old village to live temporarily on higher ground faced health problems such as fevers and soon there would be a shortage of food.
Their rice crops were damaged by the rising water and they could not plant new crops. He said his family could only retrieve about 30 percent of their property.
“Even though we are living in very difficult conditions, we still cannot accept the company’s compensation in case we cannot live in our old village any more,” he said. “We still want to live in this new place which is our farmland and where our ancestors’ spirits are. Please just build a school for our kids.
The villagers said they were worried about their children’s health, a lack of clean water and damage to their rice fields as the water rose.
Walking in water up to her waist with other villagers to take their property to higher ground, Nat Sota, 64, said the villagers were moving to live temporarily on their farmland. She said she and other villagers with her were thinking about building new houses there.
“We will wait to see how high the water rises first and if they start to provide electricity for people to use. We are thinking of talking to the company and authorities about constructing houses at the place where our ancestors’ spirits are,” she said.
She added that if they had electricity, her villagers could settle near their ancestral land.
She said they would ask the authorities and the company for five hectares of land for each family and a school, but added they did not need a health care centre because if people got sick they would go to get treatment in the town.
“It does not mean that we agree to accept the company’s compensation,” she added after hearing some of her family had agreed to accept the company compensation.
“You flooded us but that’s normal for us – it floods every year. The difficult thing is having no rice to cook,” she added.
“This flood is not natural, it’s a flood from a dam, so it will be flooded for some time. It’s also our villagers’ tears.”
Sitting on a boat on his way to check the situation, Orn Ang, a villager from Kbal Rommeas commune, said the water in her commune was also getting high and had started to flood some villages and some farmland.
Like the people in the nearby village, she said her villagers had already found a place to settle and make a new village. In case they cannot live there, they will move to build houses in their ancestors’ spirits land.
“We did not move to the new place provided by the company, but we asked the company to let us live here and provide us with public services and compensation,” she said.
“We want to live close to the river where it’s easier to farm and catch fish to support our living. We are living here the same as the wildlife,” she added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has visited the Lower Sesan II dam area and ordered the construction company and provincial authorities to prepare money and houses for the last families in Sre Ko and Kbal Romeas communes who refused to accept the compensation to move to relocation sites.
“People who have not yet left, as far as I know, have their fields and their crops,” he said.
“So prepare money for them, and also prepare houses for them too. If they agree to leave, we will give them a house, if they want to take the money, give them the money.”
According to a notification letter from Stung Treng Governor Mom Saroeun on October 11, in the case of villagers refusing to accept the compensation, the government and the company will provide options for people wanting to move to a new location near their old villages.
The letter read: “The Royal Government of Cambodia and the company claim to continue to work out and coordinate with people. And if the people still deny to accept the compensation, the Lower Sesan II Company will not be responsible for the loss of peoples’ interests.”
Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2019 at a total estimated cost of $816 million. Three companies are involved in the dam: Cambodia’s Royal Group owns 39 percent, China’s Hydrolancing International Energy has a 51 percent stake and Vietnam’s EVN International owns 10 percent.
When it is complete it will generate 400 megawatts of power, which will supply five provinces with electricity – Stung Treng, Kampong Cham, Kratie, Preah Vihear and Ratanakkiri, ending their dependence on electricity from Laos.
Walking through the flood carrying documents and a pen, Seak Mekong, the Sre Ko commune chief, said he lives far from the area, but he came to see if he could help.
“From my point of view, I think that the provincial authorities and the company should provide land that the villagers requested of them to construct their houses if they don’t want to move to a new place,” he said.
“As I am the authority here, I so pity them when their village was flooded. They could not bring their property out on time and my villagers are the same,” he added.
“I am still worried that the company will not allow them to construct homes to live in on their farmland because the company already constructed homes for them along Street 78, but as human beings I think the company should consider providing them with the land they requested,” he added.
He said that according to a report by the authorities, in the last three months more than 60 families in Sre Ko commune agreed to receive compensation and leave the old village to live in new villages. But 57 families in Kbal Romeas and more than 60 families in Sre Ko still do not accept compensation from the company.
Soeung Sen Karona, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said that villagers who refused to accept the compensation from the company should not be viewed with contempt by the project developers.
“I think for the first thing, the authorities should help those people who are flooded, provide medicine, educate them about sanitation and find a resolution that both parties can accept,” he said.
However Mr Kheun, whose village is now under water, lives in hope. “The authorities this time did not take their troops to force us out of our village, but they are flooding us, so please do whatever you want.
“I still hope that I can come back to live in my village one day if there is no flooding in the future.”