KBAL ROMEAS, Cambodia—
Dam Samnang’s home will soon be submerged. But he isn’t budging.
Samnang knows that his village, Kbal Romeas, which sits on the banks of the Srepok River, a tributary of the Mekong River in northwest Cambodia, is going to be inundated by water from a downstream hydroelectric dam. But the 30-year-old fisherman has spurned compensation for his family’s relocation and is staying put.
“What we want is our village, our river. The river and forest are not for sale, and especially not our identity and dignity,” he explains.
To emphasize that point, Samnang’s home has a spray-painted slogan in bold letters on its side declaring “NO LSS2 DAM.”
The Lower Sesan 2 Dam is a 400-megawatt hydroelectric complex due to become operational in August. When the dam’s floodgates close, Samnang’s home, along with those of 5,000 others, will be lost to the water forever. With it will go generations of traditions tying villagers in Kbal Romeas to this stretch of river.
For now, life goes on for the family. Samnang’s 2-year-old daughter, Rachana, strapped to her mother’s back, learns from her mother as they gather produce from the fertile surroundings: vegetables from the riverside garden, rice from nearby paddy fields. A fire is stoked regularly to fry the fish that Rachana’s father brought home earlier that day.
The impacts of the dams will be permanent and irreversible
But the skills Rachana is learning may soon become obsolete. The dam, and others like it, are drastically altering the ecosystem of the entire Mekong River basin and the lives of 50 million people who depend on its resources.
“The impacts of the dams will be permanent and irreversible,” explains Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent wetlands ecologist who has studied the region for decades. “They’re going to affect all aspects of life.”
Huu Thien is monitoring progress at Lower Sesan 2 from Can Tho City, Vietnam, some 250 miles down the Mekong River, one of the world’s richest waterways in terms of biodiversity. From the air, the river looks like an intricate web of arteries, veins, and capillaries as it weaves its way through Southeast Asia. Underwater, it is a muddy haze, a fog of nutrient-rich sediment that hides more than 1,200 species of fish in its depths.
But along its course—from Southern Laos, through Cambodia and Vietnam, and into the South China Sea—the relationship between the river and the people that live along its banks is beginning to change.
In the Mekong River basin, dams are redefining life.
Don Sahong, Laos
At the Laos–Cambodia border, 50 miles north of Samnang’s village, Si Phan Don, which translates as 4,000 Islands, splits the Mekong into a maze of braided channels. In one of them, the Laotian government is constructing the Don Sahong Dam, only the second hydroelectric barrier to be built on the mainstream Mekong outside of China and a key component of a plan to turn the country into the “battery of Southeast Asia.”
With a per capita GDP of less than $2,000, Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. But it is rich in hydroelectric potential, and in a bid to pull its people out of poverty, the country hopes to become a major supplier of power for the rest of the region. Don Sahong is one of 12 hydroelectric dams Laos is currently constructing on the Mekong and its tributaries.
“We are going to build infrastructure because we are poor,” says Phonekeo Daovong, the permanent secretary for Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines. “We need roads, schools, clean water, education, health facilities. All of this is needed.”
But Laos’ plans are causing concern across the wider region. Opponents of the Don Sahong say the dam will disrupt critical breeding migration routes for fish coming as far away as the Vietnam Delta and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, more than 60 miles away in Western Cambodia.
A 2010 study suggests that taken together, the mainstream dams included in Laos’ hydropower plan, along with two other proposed mainstream dams in Cambodia, could block roughly 40 percent of the Mekong’s commercial fish catch, valued at more than $500 million annually. Secondary industries, such as fish processing and boat building, which add another $2 billion to $4 billion to the economy, may also be devastated.