Lower Sesan 2 dam putting livelihoods and environment at risk

The giant dam is one of the most controversial construction projects in Cambodia. The electricity-generation potential of the Lower Sesan 2 is massive but, for the Mekong River’s aquatic life and nearby villagers, the price of such progress could be colossal

Giorgio Taraschi
November 19, 2015
Lower Sesan 2 dam putting livelihoods and environment at risk
Balancing act: a girl heads back to her home in Phluk, a once-famous fishing community, after filling buckets with river water. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi

The mighty Mekong River is the primary artery of mainland Southeast Asia. More than 60 million people depend on it for food, water and transport, but the region’s ever-growing thirst for power could bring about massive changes to the river itself and the lives of those that rely upon its gushing, greenish-brown waters.

Giorgio Taraschi, Lower Sesan 2 dam
Under construction: work continues at the Lower Sesan 2 dam building site, located at the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two of the main tributaries of the Mekong. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi

The Lower Sesan 2 dam project in Cambodia’s northern province of Stung Treng was approved by the country’s government in November 2012, despite the dam’s environmental impact assessment report failing to meet international best practice, according to a report commissioned by the Rivers Coalition in Cambodia.

Giorgio Taraschi, Lower Sesan 2 dam, Kbal Romeas, Stung Treng
Under construction: a fisherman from Kbal Romeas in Stung Treng province. His house will soon be under water. “What am I going to do in the new place without my river?” he said. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi

The $800m project is a joint venture between China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, Vietnam Electricity and Cambodia’s Royal Group, and activists have stated that the dam will have a disastrous effect on the Mekong’s fisheries and biodiversity. A 2012 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated that the project would result in a 9.3% drop in fish stocks and endanger more than 50 fish species – impacts that would be felt not only in Cambodia but downstream in Vietnam and upstream in Laos and Thailand.

Giorgio Taraschi, Bunong, Srepok river
End of days: an ethnic Bunong woman outside the sacred forest of Kot Bou along the Srepok river. She says she will not moveuntil the water “rises to my knees”. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi

The construction of the Lower Sesan 2, which is located close to the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two of the Mekong’s most significant tributaries, will also have a direct impact on thousands of families who have lived along and relied upon the river for generations.

lower sesan 2 dam, cambodia, giorgio taraschi
Ripples: a fisherman stands in a river that has been tainted by calcium chloride, severely affecting local livelihoods. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi

Approximately 5,000 people will be forcibly evicted from nearby villages to make way for the dam’s 34,000-hectare reservoir. Worryingly, communities that have been similarly resettled in China, following the construction of the Manwan and Dachaoshan dams on the Mekong, have been blighted by problems including food security, increased incidence of disease and inadequate compensation. For the innocent Cambodian families who live in the vicinity of the Lower Sesan 2, there is just one word that sums up their future: uncertain. 

lower sesan 2, kbal romeas, giorgio taraschi
Scavenging: workers from the relocation site arrive in the village of Kbal Romeas to collect teak wood from an abandoned house. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi
Giorgio Taraschi, lower sesan 2, srae sronok
Cut deep: a boy from Srae Sronok village carves wood that will be used in construction at the relocation site. Many villagers do not want to move into the new concrete homes due to concerns over build quality. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi
Giorgio Taraschi, lower sesan 2
Hard place: a father and son outside their home. The red paint reads ‘LSS2’ and means the family must be relocated. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi
lower sesan 2, kbal romeas
That’s entertainment: children watch a film on a laptop powered by a car battery in Kbal Romeas. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi
lower sesan 2, cambodia
Site for sore eyes: the relocation site for villagers, who were offered $6,000 per family to build their own home or settle in one of these small concrete houses. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi
lower sesan 2, diamond island
View of the future: Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island seen from the window of a new Japanese hotel. Developing cities in the region are thirsty for electricty. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi
lower sesan 2, Snow Town
Bread and circuses: Snow Town, an attraction at one of the hundreds of shopping malls in Thailand that require ever more electricity. Photo: Giorgio Taraschi

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