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Chinese-Built Dam in Cambodia Creates a Human Rights Disaster

Arvind Datta
Arvind is a recluse who prefers staying far away from the limelight as possible. Be that as it may, he keeps a close eye on what's happening and reports on it to keep people rightly informed.
Published: August 14, 2021
Cambodian premier Hun Sen opened the largest dam in the country, swatting away warnings about the disastrous impact it could have on the environment and local livelihoods.
Cambodian premier Hun Sen opened the largest dam in the country, swatting away warnings about the disastrous impact it could have on the environment and local livelihoods. (Image: LY LAY/AFP via Getty Images)

A new report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details how a Chinese-financed hydroelectric dam in Cambodia has undermined the rights of thousands of indigenous people. Lower Sesan 2 dam was completed in 2018, costing $782 million. It has flooded large areas upstream of the confluence of Srepol and Sesan Rivers, tributaries of the Mekong River.

One of the widest dams in Asia, Lower Sesan 2’s construction led to the displacement of 5,000 families in the area who had lived there for several generations. 

“The Lower Sesan II dam washed away the livelihoods of Indigenous and ethnic minority communities who previously lived communally and mostly self-sufficiently from fishing, forest-gathering, and agriculture,” John Sifton told VOA. Sifton is the Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director. 

State-owned China Huaneng Group (CHNG) took over the dam project in 2012; construction began in 2013. It has called the dam a “display window project” for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a trillion-dollar infrastructure project aimed to advance Chinese foreign policy interests worldwide. CHNG owns a 51 percent controlling share of the dam through subsidiary Hydrolancang International Energy. Thirty-nine percent is owned by the Royal Group, one of Cambodia’s largest companies; 10 percent is controlled by a subsidiary of the Electricity of Vietnam (EVN).

Much of the funding for the project came from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. CHNG claimed that the dam can generate 400 megawatts of electricity at peak capacity and 1,998-gigawatt hours annually. However, the report discovered that actual electricity production amounts to only a third of the projected levels.

Human rights issues

Prior to the dam’s construction, people living in the villages of the affected regions had a self-sustainable lifestyle. The families fished, grew rice and vegetables, and gathered other essentials from forests. After taking a portion of the fish for personal consumption, they would sell the remaining ones in nearby markets. The villagers also earned income through the sale of excess rice and other crops, cashews, bananas, coconuts, herbs, flowers, resin, and mushrooms.

When the dam was completed in 2018, indigenous communities, such as the Kachok, Tampuan, Kreung, Kavet, Brao, Lao, Kuoy, and Bunong, who had been living along the Sesan and Srepok Rivers for many generations, were displaced. People who depended on fisheries for food and income were hurt as yields across the Mekong River fell. This is quite significant since fish makes up 60 to 75 percent of the protein in the diet of an average Cambodian. 

To compensate the forcibly displaced population, CHNG provided them with a parcel of land with a pre-built home or $6,000. The resettlement was several kilometers away from where the villagers used to fish and farm. The new area was also acrid, rocky, and less fertile than the earlier farmlands. It is also difficult to plow. 

“The soil of our old farmland was much better than the new farmland because it was close to the river. The muddy soil was easy to plow and the sediment was much better,” an affected villager says in the report.

The resettled families were given compensation for anticipated income loss. However, the compensation was only calculated based on fishing income for just one year. It did not take into account the agricultural income. As a result, most families ended up receiving a one-time payment that was well below the actual loss of income. The villagers were also not supported with skill development and vocational training to help them procure new employment.

Government and administration issues

The report blamed the Cambodian government for “repeatedly” downplaying opposition to the project. During the dam’s opening ceremony in 2018, the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed that a “majority of local villagers” supported the construction of the dam. He said that only a few people “incited by foreigners” have caused trouble for the project.

The report quotes a villager who refutes these claims. 

“There were objections from us all. We told them that we didn’t want to see the development of the dam…. In the consultation, they determined things for us. They didn’t ask us what we want or need.”

Well before the dam’s construction began, several agencies had warned about potential problems that would arise from the structure. In 2008, an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) commissioned by EVN warned that 300,000 people would be “indirectly impacted” by the project. 

A 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. had predicted that the dam would heavily affect the fish population in the Mekong River system, projecting a roughly 10 percent loss in fish biomass “basin-wide.”

In May 2021, CHNG’s Sustainability Report on the dam also acknowledged the various problems that arose as a result of the structure. However, it downplayed the severity of the issues. 

The CHNG report “simply sidesteps them, accentuating that relocated villagers were given ‘new houses’ and ‘five hectares of land,’ have a ‘new school,’ access to ‘better roads,’ and are closer to towns. It acknowledges, in passing, that most relocated villagers’ income declined after resettlement, that most lack proper access to safe and clean drinking water, and that their previously ‘self-sufficient’ communal lifestyle had been disrupted,” the HRW report states. 

The report asked China Huaneng Group and Hydropower Lower Sesan 2 Co. Ltd to re-evaluate compensation for impacted communities and create effective grievance mechanisms. It advised the Cambodian government to ensure that proper human rights and environmental due diligence are conducted on future hydroelectric projects. International donors like the US, UK, EU, Japan, Australia, and South Korea were encouraged to press the Cambodian and Chinese governments to protect the rights of vulnerable communities. 

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