Cambodia needs energy. Almost half of this Southeast Asian country is without electricity. Work will soon be completed on the country's largest hydropower project to date, the Sesan 2 dam, on the Sesan River, a tributary of the Mekong River near the border with Laos.
The dam is an $800 million joint Chinese-Cambodian venture from a company called Hydro Power Lower Sesan 2 Co. Ltd. When it's finished, two nearby villages, Srekor and Kbal Romeas, will be underwater.
Most of Srekor's residents — about 400 families — have already been resettled in a new village about an hour's drive down the road.
Fisherman Fout Kaeun isn't one of them.
"You see that we live next to the river," he says — a river that provides almost everything. "We can catch fish to eat, it provides water to drink and the land alongside is good for growing crops."
He says there's no way he's going to the new village.
"There's no river there," he says. The soil's no good, either, he says: "You can't grow anything, so how will I survive? How will my family survive?"
Kaeun doesn't believe Srekor village will be entirely submerged by the dam. But if it happens, he says, "We just make it a floating village, a tourist attraction" — like the one on the Tonle Sap lake, near the temples of Angkor Wat.
If the villages do that, he says, they can also protect the forest nearby. And everyone, he says, can make money.
A lot of people are already making money from cutting down Cambodia's forests to sell its luxury hardwood abroad. Some indigenous villagers here say the new dam is helping hasten their forests' destruction.
"Before, we used to cut some trees," says Vann Oun, a 40-year-old resident. "But just for our houses, not to sell to Vietnam and to China."
As we talk, a makeshift ferry on the edge of the village is filling up with small tractors stacked high with freshly cut timber, waiting for the short journey across the river, and from there, to the dam concession area.
If a company needs to clear timber from a site for construction — say, for a dam — that's considered legally cut timber that can be sold. And if illegally cut timber can be funneled to those sites, and is claimed as being felled there, it's considered legal too, and ready for export.
Oun says that's been happening since construction began nearly five years ago on the Sesan 2 dam.
"The company says they were just clearing the reservoir, but that's not true," he says. "They're having people bring wood to the dam concession area from all over the province."
The joint venture in charge of dam construction denies these allegations, even as it and the government tighten the screws on those still refusing to leave the two villages upstream. In late July, they began filling the dam reservoir for "operational testing." And parts of Srekor ended up knee-deep in water.
Nat Sota, 64, says it was meant to scare holdouts like her.
"They were just trying to test us," she says, "to see if we'd leave."
The government has pulled the teachers from the village school, emptied the local Buddhist temple of monks — and sometimes blocks the road to the village to keep nosy visitors away.
Sota says it's not going to work. She is from the indigenous community here, with a strong connection to the land.
"I cannot leave my ancestors here," she says. "I can't abandon their spirits. If I do that, I will lose my identity. If I abandon them, I won't know who I am."
As for the resettlement villages, they are bleak. One of them, New Kbal Romeas, is on the main highway and easily accessible. It's a collection of newly built houses. There's electricity, but little else. It's just as the folks back in Srekor had predicted — and feared.
"Here we have to buy our fish from the vendors, and we have to buy our water from them too," says Im Chin, 22. "Before, we could get both from the river."
She says her family can't grow much on the land — and it's less than what they were promised. "I'm angry with the company," she says. "They promised adequate compensation for us, but they didn't provide what they promised."
It's not just the villagers of Srekor and Kbal Romeas whose lives are being upended by the new dam. There are millions of people living downstream along the Mekong who depend on the river for their livelihoods. And the three river systems that converge just upstream of the Sesan 2 dam are part of that ecosystem.
"Lower Sesan is one of the most impactful projects on tributaries, because it is, downstream, the largest tributary of the Mekong," says Marc Goichot of the World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong Program. And, he says, it is "one that is very important for both sediment management for the Mekong and even more importantly for fish migration."
Messing with sediment flow — the sand, silt, soil or other solids rivers carry downstream — could affect agricultural production downstream. Messing with fish migration — the ability of fish to travel freely up and downstream to spawn — could mean fewer fish in the future.
Courtney Weatherby is a research analyst for the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
"Some experts have estimated that just the single dam, the Lower Sesan 2, may impact 9 percent of the fisheries of the entire Mekong basin," Weatherby says. "So that would be a significant loss from just one project." Less fish, in a region where fish is a cheap and nutritionally vital part of many people's diets.
Goichot warns of the long-term impact of large dams like the Sesan 2 in the lower Mekong region.
"It's death by many cuts," he says. "And what we're seeing is the Mekong river system is reacting faster and to a bigger extent than other large rivers. So the current levels of change already happening in the Mekong basin are already having some serious impacts downstream on channels of the Mekong but also clearly on the Mekong delta, which is sinking and shrinking."
Meanwhile, Cambodia plans to build two more dams on the Mekong main stem, below the Sesan 2. Upstream on the Mekong, in neighboring Laos, two new dams are already under construction.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Cambodia's getting a new dam. And this is a big deal in a country where almost half the population still lacks electricity. But it's on a major tributary of the Mekong River, and that worries environmentalists. And as Michael Sullivan reports, indigenous families being forced from their homes aren't happy either.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm standing in Srekor village on the Sesan River, about 20 miles upstream from the new dam. And a few weeks back, most of this village was underwater as the company filled the reservoir behind the dam to see how things were working. Since then, the company has released some of that water, and the floodwaters here have receded. The question is, for how long? And what happens to the people here who refuse to leave when the new dam is finished?
Most of the residents here, about 400 families, have already been resettled in a new village about an hour down the road. Fisherman Fout Kaeun isn't one of them and says he never will be.
FOUT KAEUN: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "This river gives us everything," he says, "fish to eat, water to drink. And the land here is good for growing crops." What about the new village, I ask. He snorts.
FOUT: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "There's no river there," he says, "it's not even close. So how can we fish? And the land there is full of rocks. You can't grow anything. So how will my family survive?" He thinks the government is bluffing when it says his village will soon be underwater permanently. And if he's wrong, he says...
FOUT: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "We'll just make it a floating village," he says, "a tourist attraction, like on the lake near the temples of Angkor Wat. We can do ecotourism and protect the forest so people will want to come." But both his village and the forest may be gone sooner than he thinks.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR)
SULLIVAN: There's a makeshift ferry that crosses the river not far from the village, and it's busy this morning - small tractors stacked high with freshly cut timber headed for the dam concession area on the other side.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: It's all luxury hardwood. And it's all illegally harvested. But get it to the damn concession site - the area cleared for the reservoir - and say it was cut there, and suddenly, it's clean and legal for export. That doesn't make the indigenous residents here happy, either.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: I sit with one of them, Vann Oun, at his modest shop on the river, where his wife is making iced coffee for a customer.
VANN OUN: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "Sure, we used to cut some trees," he says, "but just for our houses, not to be sold to Vietnam or to China."
VANN: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "The company says it was just clearing the reservoir, but that's not true," he says. "They're having people bring wood to the concession area from all over the province," he claims. The Chinese-Khmer joint venture denies these allegations, even as it and the government tighten the screws on those still refusing to leave. The teachers have been pulled from the village school. The temple has been emptied of monks. And police sometimes block the road to keep nosy visitors from reaching the village. Sixty-four-year-old Nat Sota says the flooding earlier this month was part of that effort, too.
NAT SOTA: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "They were just trying to test us," she says, "by filling the reservoir to see if we'd give up." She says that won't happen. She's also from the indigenous community here, with a strong connection to the land and her ancestors buried in it.
NAT: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "I can't leave my ancestors here," she says, "I can't abandon their spirits. If I do that," she says, "I'll lose my identity. If I abandon them," she says, "I won't know who I am." And it's not just these villagers who will be affected when the dam is finished. Marc Goichot, a hydrologist with the World Wildlife Fund, says there are millions of people living downstream in the Mekong basin who depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods.
MARC GOICHOT: It is downstream the largest tributary of the Mekong and one that is very important for both sediment management to the Mekong, and even more importantly, for fish migration.
SULLIVAN: How important? Courtney Weatherby follows Southeast Asia hydropower issues at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
COURTNEY WEATHERBY: Some experts have estimated that just this single dam, the Lower Sesan 2, may impact about 9 percent of the fisheries of the entire Mekong basin. So that would be a significant loss from just one project.
SULLIVAN: Cambodia has two more dams planned for the Mekong below the Sesan 2. Two more are already under construction upstream in neighboring Laos. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Srekor village, Cambodia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.