Cambodian Women Speak Up on Dam's Threat

Monday, July 4, 2011

In Cambodia's rural northeastern province, the Sesan River is the primary source of food and income for fishing and farming communities. But hydropower dams are encroaching and village women say their daily life is hit the hardest.

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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.

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