Gabriel Lamug-Nañawa, SJ
February 28, 2013 was a very hot day, the sun was out, welcomed by a cloudless sky. The air was still, except for winds of dust stirred up by makeshift tractors which went ahead. There were around 12 koyuns or mechanical cows as they are called, each carrying 10 to 15 people, snaking through open low-land forest and large clearings made by land concession companies. Thirsty, sweaty, and dusty, we all bobbed along in our places on wooden planks, synchronized with the bumps on the trail. This procession of koyuns and about 30 motorbikes was on its way to a liturgy of sorts, seeking the sheltered altar of Neak Ta Krohom Kor, literally meaning the ancient spirit with a red neck, to call on him who protects the river and the villagers who depend on it, to hear the pleas of those who have come.
The people who gathered together come from different villages around the northeastern corner of Cambodia, where three important rivers merge and feed into the great Mekong. The Sekong, Sesan, and Srepok rivers support sub-basins that reach from Cambodia into the Annamite Range in southern Laos and the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
The Sekong River originates from the Annamese Mountains in Laos and has a basin area of 28,820 sq km. The two other rivers originate from Vietnam: the Srepok River, 520 km long, has a catchment area of 30,942 sq km, while the Sesan River is 462 km long with a basin of 18,888 sq km.1 Together, the area of the three basins is divided by three borders: Cambodia (33%), Laos (29%), and Vietnam (38%).2
Within Cambodia, this area includes the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, the Virachey National Park, and deep pools that have been recognized as important Fish Conservation Zones. The annual water discharge from these three river basins constitutes approximately 17-20% of the total annual flow of the Mekong River in Cambodia, making this particular system of tributaries the largest contributor in the lower Mekong basin.3 Thus, these three river basins form a single ecological unit which has significant biological importance, and is widely recognized for its rich aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
There are around 3.5 million people living in the Sekong, Sesan, and Srepok basins.4 On the Cambodian side, the majority of the villagers are Khmer, but there are significant numbers who are from ethnic minorities such as Jarai, Kachok, Lao, Kreung, Brao, Tampuan, Kavet, Chinese, and Khmer Khek.5 Due to several factors affecting formal education, the general level of learning is low. A recent survey shows that only 50.4% of the people in this area have had any form of primary education, 10.1% lower secondary education, 4.4% upper secondary education, and 33.6% never having attended school.6
Almost all the village communities live close to the rivers or their tributaries. They depend on the rivers and on the forests for fishing, agriculture, and collecting forest products. Thus, the health of these ecosystems is crucial for their livelihoods and their own survival.
In recent years, Cambodia’s economy has been growing quite rapidly, with many investment companies coming into the country. However, physical infrastructure such as adequate and reliable electrical energy supply, has not been able to keep up with the demand. In fact, Cambodia imports power from Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in amounts approximating 42% of its total electricity consumption.7 Of the energy that Cambodia does produce, most of it is done so rather inefficiently, with 93% coming from diesel plants, 3% from coal-fired steam power plants, 3% from hydropower dams, and 1% from other firewood and biomass-based.8
Access to stable and continuous electricity in Cambodia is not common, especially for those residing in rural areas. Only around 26.4% of the total population is connected to the national grid, 87% of who reside in urban areas and 13% in the countryside.9 Unsurprisingly, energy distribution is skewed towards the cities. For example, Phnom Penh consumes 90% of the country’s energy supply, despite housing only 10% of the entire population.10
With Cambodia’s electrification levels among the lowest in Southeast Asia,11 the government is determined to remedy this situation by relying heavily on the development of hydropower. In fact, there are plans for around 20 hydropower dams around the country,12 which are part of the grand scheme to generate 6,000 MW by 2020 with 68% of this energy to be supplied by hydropower.13
Lower Sesan 2
One planned dam stands out from among the others. The Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam is the largest hydropower project in Cambodia and is located on the Sesan River approximately 25 km upstream from the town of Stung Treng and 1.5 km downstream of the confluence of the Srepok and Sesan rivers.14 Situated at this point, the Lower Sesan 2 will block two of the largest rivers in the Mekong River Basin.15
Construction of the dam was approved in January 2011 and is expected to begin operations in 2017.16 The dam wall will be 75 m amsl or about 40 m above the riverbed,17 with a length of around 1 km18 to 8 km19 depending on which report is referred to. Its projected power generation capacity is 480 MW and will cost an estimated US$816 million.20
The most anticipated effect of the proposed dam is the relocation of villages to be inundated by the dam reservoir. The dam will stock 1.79 billion cu m of water covering around 400 sq km and displacing at least 5,000 people from seven villages.21
Another effect is loss of access to forest and wildlife resources, but most especially to fisheries along the Sesan and Srepok rivers and its tributaries. It is estimated that around 66% of the rivers’ fish species regularly migrate through the proposed dam site.22 Building the dam at this point will cut off their natural migration route and will severely decimate the number of fish species migrating between the Mekong and Sekong rivers and the Sesan and Srepok rivers. Thus, there will be 78,000 people from 173 villages along the Sesan and Srepok rivers and their tributaries who will lose access to their fisheries resources because of the dam.23 This is very important since “villagers [in Stung Treng Province] consistently reported fish as being the most important type of natural resource for consumption, exchange, and income-generation.”24
On the downstream side, the effects of the dam will be felt both near and far. The dam will change water properties downstream and will adversely affect a variety of ecosystems. “The dramatic change of hydrological conditions and water quality downstream of the Sesan 2 dam would have severe impacts on the ecological conditions and all life associated with the river.”25 The 22,277 people from 19 villages living close downstream of the Sesan and Sekong rivers would certainly feel these impacts.26
The dam will also block the long distance migration of many fish species. “Hundreds of thousands of people living as far away as the Tonle Sap Lake in Central Cambodia, the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam, and the middle Mekong River in Laos and Thailand would be negatively impacted by the Sesan 2 dam as a result of severe impacts to important fish stocks that conduct regional migrations.”27
For example, fishes from the Cyprinidae family such as Trey Pa Sa-i (Mekongina erythrospila) and Trey Pava Muk Pi (Bangara behri) would be part of only one group among several others whose migrations would be blocked by the dam.28 The Trey Pa Sa-i and Trey Pava Muk Pi fishes are expensive and important fish species for the people in the area. In fact, the statue of the Trey Pa Sa-i in the middle of Stung Treng town points to the significance this fish has for the people of that region.
Thus, for all the reasons put together, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 asserted that the Lower Sesan 2 dam is “the single worst tributary project currently planned in the Lower Mekong Basin for fish biodiversity.”29
Finding Neak Ta Krohom Kor
We finally arrive at a simple three-walled cement structure with a tin roof, its opening facing the Sesan River. The villagers gather around and begin a familiar ritual, offering incense, a bowl of rice, and a pig’s head. The beginnings of this annual ceremony are not clearly known, though there are stories that go back to the late 1800s or early 1900s, when a Chinese merchant was rewarded with a successful journey up the river when he paid his respects to the spirit with the red neck. Out of gratitude he came back and built a small shelter for Neak Ta Krohom Kor at the spot where we gathered.
At this point of the ritual, a middle-aged woman with red clothing is believed to have gone into a trance and allowed the spirit to enter her and speak to the people around. Through her, the villagers speak aloud their prayers for good health and for the protection of the rivers and its fishes. In matters of “development,” these villagers feel that they have no real voice, with opinions bordering on the opposite and only expressed in whispers. It is within this sense of vulnerability that they seek the only one who has been with them through the years and has kept the rivers bountiful. Is it God? For them, perhaps it does not matter who Neak Ta Krohom Kor really is. Whoever he is, it is on him they now again depend.
1. The NGO Forum on Cambodia, Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam: Current Livelihoods of Local Communities (A Baseline Study), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 2012.
2. Mekong Flows, http://www.mekongriver.info/3ss-project (Accessed April 2013).
4. 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN), Civil Society’s Reflection of Past and Present Hydropower Development in the 3S Rivers Basin Paves Concern Over Future Development Plans, 31 May 2010.
5. Baird, Ian G. 2009. Best Practices in Compensation and Resettlement for Large Dams: The Case of the Planned Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Northeastern Cambodia. Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
6. The NGO Forum on Cambodia, Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam: Current Livelihoods of Local Communities (A Baseline Study), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 2012.
8. Electricity Authority of Cambodia, Report on the Electricity Sector of the Kingdom of Cambodia 2011, Phnom Penh, 2012.
9. National Institute of Statistics, Ministry of Planning, Report on Demographic Census of Cambodia 2008, Phnom Penh, 2009.
10. Chea, Piseth. Hydroelectricity Department of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, Presentation on National Power and Hydropower Development Plans in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, July 2009.
11. Jona, Victor. General Department of Energy of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, Presentation on Cambodia Energy Status and its Development, Phnom Penh, March 2011.
12. The NGO Forum on Cambodia, Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam: Current Livelihoods of Local Communities (A Baseline Study), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 2012.
13. Pann, Phallan. Deputy Secretary General, Supreme National Economic Council, Presentation on Energy Sector in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, September 2009.
14. Baird, Ian G. 2009. Best Practices in Compensation and Resettlement for Large Dams: The Case of the Planned Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Northeastern Cambodia. Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
16. Grimsditch, Mark, 2012. 3S Rivers Under Threat: Understanding New Threats and Challenges from Hydropower Development to Biodiversity and Community Rights in the 3S River Basin. 3SPN and International Rivers, Bangkok.
18. Baird, Ian G. 2009. Best Practices in Compensation and Resettlement for Large Dams: The Case of the Planned Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Northeastern Cambodia. Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
19. Complete Environmental Impact Assessment Report, Final Report: Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project, December 2009.
20. The NGO Forum on Cambodia, Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam: Current Livelihoods of Local Communities (A Baseline Study), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 2012.
22. Power Engineering Consulting Joint Stock Company No1 and Key Consultants Cambodia, Environmental Impact Assessment for LS2, October 2008.
23. Baird, Ian G. 2009. Best Practices in Compensation and Resettlement for Large Dams: The Case of the Planned Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Northeastern Cambodia. Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
24. Singh, S., et al, 2006. Trade in Natural Resources in Stung Treng Province, Cambodia: An assessment of the wildlife trade. TRAFFIC, MWBP, Vientiane, Lao PDR.
25. Baird, Ian G. 2009. Best Practices in Compensation and Resettlement for Large Dams: The Case of the Planned Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project in Northeastern Cambodia. Rivers Coalition in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
29. Grimsditch, Mark, 2012. 3S Rivers Under Threat: Understanding New Threats and Challenges from Hydropower Development to Biodiversity and Community Rights in the 3S River Basin. 3SPN and International Rivers, Bangkok.
Gabriel “Gabby” Lamug-Nañawa, SJ is with the Jesuit Service-Cambodia and can be reached through his email gabbyln(at)yahoo.com.