PHNOM PENH - Rights groups in Cambodia called on the United Nations to investigate alleged rights abuses against villagers living at the sites of two large hydropower dam projects.
They also called on the Cambodian government to scrap the two controversial dams -- one in the northeast, the other in the southwest -- on the grounds that they will profoundly damage people’s lives, livelihoods and the environment.
Their requests come ahead of a visit by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights.
Ame Trandem, the regional program director at the nonprofit International Rivers, told VOA via Skype that the groups want the U.N. to investigate the human cost of the projects.
“We think these are two dams that are particularly devastating to local communities and also to the region, and should be canceled," Trandem said.
Dam on Mekong tributary
The larger and more worrisome dam is the $800 million Lower Se San 2. It is being built on the Se San River, which is a major tributary of the Mekong, near the northern border with Laos.
The Mekong itself runs through Cambodia before emptying into the sea in southern Vietnam, and some 65 million people in four countries share its lower reaches.
Environmentalists said the Lower Se San 2 dam will devastate the region’s freshwater fish stocks; one expert study estimates the regional fish catch will drop nearly 10 percent, some 200,000 tons a year, as a result.
The impact on nutrition would be significant because Cambodians rely on freshwater fish for two-thirds of their protein intake.
The Lower Se San 2 dam, which Trandem said is one of the region’s worst, will also force thousands of people to move, and will block as much as 8 percent of sediment flows in the Mekong.
“The sediment is really important for agricultural productivity, but also for the stability of the riverbank channels. And so this is a great threat also to Vietnam and the whole Mekong Delta," she said. "It’s a complex area of many channels, but it’s also the main source of food. It’s the rice bowl of southeast Asia, and this will be threatened by the Lower Se San 2 dam.”
The second dam is the Stung Cheay Areng dam in Koh Kong province in the southwest. Should that go ahead, 1,500 indigenous people living in the valley will be forced to movee. Rights groups said it will also inflict serious environmental damage on the area.
Growing electricity needs
The government’s position is that the country needs to generate much more electricity to meet growing demand, and that building dams, which are typically constructed by Chinese state-owned companies and funded by loans from Beijing, is a sensible solution.
It also insists dams provide a net benefit, despite their social and environmental costs.
Sao Sopheap, chief of staff at the Ministry of Environment, said that to his knowledge there is no plan to scrap the 400-megawatt Lower Se San 2 dam. As for the Stung Cheay Areng dam, he said the environment and social assessment study is still underway; a decision on whether or not to proceed will come later.
“There’s no official decision to cancel the idea. What we have right now is just to let the company do the study on the environment and social impact assessment - to complete that first - so that the government will have a better idea whether to go ahead or cancel," he said.
Tek Vannara, the executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, an umbrella group of nonprofits, said the lesson emerging from these disputes is that the government and companies involved in such projects must start listening to ordinary people.
“The process of participation is still very limited in terms of involving with the large-scale development projects like hydropower dams, economic land concessions and mining concessions. And also for the information flow is still limited, especially the flow from the national to the community. This is the root cause of the misunderstanding between the community, government and developers in Cambodia," Vannara said.
On Monday the nonprofits involved sent a 40-page report to Surya Subedi, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, listing the abuses they said local people in the vicinity of these two dams have suffered.
They have asked the U.N. to investigate and seek remedies for those affected.
Subedi, who is scheduled to visit Cambodia for nine days starting January 17, said by email that he could not comment on the report until he had verified its contents and heard the government’s view. He said he would look into the issues during his visit.