HRW slams Lower Sesan 2 Hydroproject that caused ‘Massive Ecological Harm’

Four years ago, the gates of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam closed for the first time, spilling water into what would eventually become a 300 sq. km reservoir covering lands once home to almost 5,000 people.

Sran Lanj watched as the river rose and the land, lived on by her indigenous Bunong community for generations, disappeared.

“We packed our things in a boat and moved to higher ground three kilometres away,” the mother of three told Nikkei Asia. “We lost the home where our ancestors lived, their tombs are underwater. We lost our farm, our rice, vegetables, mangos and coconut trees. We lost our identity.”

In a report released on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch details the social destruction wrought by Cambodia’s largest hydropower project, a China-backed joint venture built at the intersection of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, tributaries of the Mekong in the country’s north.

Near the country’s northern border with Laos some 260 kilometres northeast of the capital Phnom Penh, the dam, according to its builders, can generate 400 megawatts at peak capacity and about 1,998 gigawatt hours per year, just over 15% of Cambodia’s annual electricity production.

Human Rights Watch, however, claims the hydro plant likely generates just a third of its maximum capacity, a calculation based on reported tax revenue from the dam of $30 million.

The group found the 75-meter-high, 6-km-long dam had drastically reduced fish catches and submerged agricultural land vital for the largely indigenous ethnic minority communities that live in the region.

HRW said the almost $800 million development, one of six large China-funded hydropower dams built in Cambodia during the past decade, serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of major China-financed infrastructure projects in countries with poor human rights protections.

“It reveals what’s wrong with the Belt and Road Initiative worldwide, from Africa to Southeast Asia,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “These projects lack safeguards built into the financing and oversight… Neither the Chinese state ministries that oversee Belt & Road nor the companies themselves have adequate policies and protocols in place to ensure these types of abuses don’t take place.”

Between 2019 and 2021, the report’s authors interviewed dozens of residents affected by the project, traveling to several villages surrounding the site in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces.

Fishing-dependent communities both upstream and downstream complained the dam had interrupted fish migration and caused catches to shrink, particularly of larger, more lucrative species.

A so-called “fish ladder” a canal intended to allow fish to bypass the dam served a limited number of species and was “entirely inadequate,” according to the report.

“Prior to the Lower Sesan 2 dam being built, we could catch about 5 kg to 10 kg a day,” Narin, a 59-year-old fisherman who lives upstream, told the authors. “Now we can only catch about 1 kg to 2 kg, and sometimes no fish at all.”

The Lower Sesan 2 site was among six identified for development in a 1999 Asian Development Bank-funded report. Questions about its merits arose from the start, according to Ian Baird, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In a 2009 report, Baird wrote that the ADB-funded consultants had found the dam “unattractive for investment due to its marginal financial viability” and were also worried about its “heavy environmental and social impacts.”

Nevertheless, the project went ahead, with state-owned electricity giant Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) initially leading it, undertaking feasibility and resettlement studies in the late 2000s. The majority stake later passed to China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, which holds 51% ownership. The local partner, Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group, owns 39% and EVN retained 10%.

Royal Group has not responded to a request for comment.

The dam is privately run but will return to government ownership after 40 years. Hydrolancang is a subsidiary of state-owned China Huaneng Group, whose local arm also has yet to respond to a request for comment.

As the dam began operating in 2017, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the project would lower electricity prices. He dismissed environmental concerns, claiming the dam would have no impact on fish stocks, reported Voice of America.

He also defended the relocation of villagers from the site, saying they had been provided with new homes and land, reported Radio Free Asia.

But many families were pressured into accepting resettlement arrangements that moved communities to land with poor soil and no drinkable water, HRW found.

China Huaneng, in fact, released a corporate social responsibility study acknowledging relocated residents faced “increasingly higher costs” from paying for clean water and, having lost access to fishing grounds and food.

Unable to fish and with forest products “harder to find,” relocated residents have “found it hard for income generation,” the company wrote. Despite this, it concluded the dam “enhanced the livelihoods of local people” and its power “promoted economic development.”

Compensation packages, typically a parcel of land and either a prebuilt house or $6,000, were taken by more than 700 families. But Human Rights Watch found they were “far from adequate” and did not account for the ongoing loss of income because of lost crops, fruit trees and reduced fish catches.

Lanj, the mother of three who moved to higher ground, and her family are one of more than 180 families that refused relocation and instead moved to smaller areas of remaining ancestral land near the newly flooded reservoir. No amount of money, she said, can make up for a broken community.

“My community has always been together,” she said, “but now we are stuck on different sides of the river.”

Author: Shaun Turton & Bopha Phorn
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.