RATANAKIRI PROVINCE, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)–-The Cambodian government has not yet secured funding for Lower Sesan 2, a 750 megawatt, $650 million dam that would export electricity to Vietnam and become the largest hydropower dam in Cambodia.
With plans underway, though, some women in the deeply spiritual nine ethnic indigenous communities of Ratanakiri Province, 10 hours north of Phnom Penh, are braced for the worst.
Ratanakiri residents along the Sesan river support themselves by fishing and farming, both subject to drastic disruption by the project. The dam is expected to impinge on fish migration and flood surrounding farmland.
On Si Kan is "spirit chief" of her community of about 250, a position typically held by Lao ethnic women who channel male spirits. She has already given up any thought of fighting the dam, planned for 80 miles downstream.
"I tell people we can do nothing to stop the project. The government will build the dam," said On, 57, through a Khmer translator. "So the people can wait for the dam to come and they can die in the floods it will cause, or they can move away from the river."
At the same time as women such as On are resigned, others are leading community opposition, says Ian Baird, a University of Wisconsin, Madison, professor of geography and fisheries. Baird has worked in the region for more than 25 years.
"When people from Ratanakiri come down to Phnom Penh to talk, many of them are really intimidated," he said. "But it's the women who are asking the most powerful questions, even as everyone is 100-percent afraid to speak out."
Ratanakiri representatives attended a national consultation on Sesan 2 at the end of May in Phnom Penh where the environmental minister, Prach Sun, highlighting project benefits.
"It will help bring Cambodia development and reduce poverty," Prach said. "This will contribute to the resources of Cambodia and to its people. That is the most important thing."
Distrusting the Process
Hor Voy South, a 56-year-old mother of eight, is a community organizer for 3S Rivers Protection Network, or 3SPN, which supports communities threatened by hydropower dams in northeastern Cambodia. She attended the consultation in Phnom Penh and says she doubts the meeting will help.
"The community talks and the government listens, but nothing changes," she said. "We say, 'We don't want the government to build the dam here,' but we think they will build it anyway."
The sense of powerlessness among communities of Ratanakiri Province, 10 hours north of Phnom Penh, derives from what happened after another dam was built on the same river.
Yali Falls, a 720 megawatt hydropower dam, was established in 1996 on a part of the Sesan that is in central Vietnam, approximately 100 miles upstream from Ratanakiri.
The Yali construction caused flooding of land hundreds of miles away and hindered the migratory passage of the fish locals depended on for food and income.
Hydropower dams are sprouting up across Southeast Asia. Twenty seven are now operating in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia; nine are being built and 14 are proposed. Hydropower dams produce one of the most common forms of renewable electricity, while releasing a very low rate of greenhouse gas emissions.
They also create havoc to traditional livelihoods. Upstream, the rivers back up and cause flooding. Downstream, the water volume is constrained, threatening aquatic life.
Water around hydro-dams is also prone to producing algae that can be poisonous or degrade water qualities in other ways.
Spirit Chief Moved to Higher Ground
After Spirit Chief On's property flooded multiple times following Yali's construction, she moved several miles away inland from the river in 2006.
Displacement like this, she said, was particularly hard on women who may have to seek out new, unfamiliar sources of food for their families inland and travel farther to find water.
While male villagers customarily do the fishing, women clean clothes and bathe children and draw water from it. After a dam, the river's flows become unstable and threatening. Women say their constant contacts with the river are now riddled with anxiety, especially when they consider the possibility that a giant dam could break.
"The floods come and destroy the farms and it becomes difficult for women, who have to do all of the work. Then we have to move to high land, and there we don't know where to find food," said the spirit chief.
On her dry patch of land it's difficult to grow food and there isn't always enough to feed the five people in her house. But at least she's not worried about flooding.
Im Yim Krub, 35, by contrast, still worries about flooding. She lives about 20 feet from the river, a few miles away from the spirit chief's land. In 2009 the river filled her house and attached convenient store with 4 feet of water. She fled on motorcycle with her husband and four children and stayed with relatives in the mountains for weeks.
"I think always if that could happen again this year. I have become afraid of the river and how it can rise so quickly," said Im, who does not let her children play in the river unsupervised.
Im sells bottled water for 25 cents, though she herself relies on a nearby well for drinking water. But many residents, like Hor Voy South, a 56-year-old mother of eight, drink from and bathe in the dirt-colored river.
Hor and one of her sons have developed skin infections in the past 10 years and often suffer diarrhea. She, like more than 40 percent of all Cambodians, lives on less than $1.25 a day.
More than 1,000 people in Ratanakiri have died since 1996 as a result of poor water quality, according to University of Wisconsin's Baird.
Yali Falls' downstream impact in Cambodia has caused serious ecological and social-economic problems for approximately 20,000 Ratanakiri residents and tens of thousands of people farther down the river. Aside from flooding and health problems, loss of fish and vegetables have also lowered people's regular incomes and food intakes. People in Ratanakiri have not received financial compensation for their health problems or income losses.
If Lower Sesan 2 is built, Ratanakiri residents will receive a one-time lump-sum payment to cover a single year for fish losses.
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Amy Lieberman, currently in Southeast Asia, is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer based in New York City.