Officials and Chinese experts inspect the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam on Saturday before its gates were closed. Photo supplied
Officials and Chinese experts inspect the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam on Saturday before its gates were closed. Photo supplied

The doors of the Lower Sesan II dam were closed on Saturday for a monthlong test run, forcing more than 100 families holding out in Stung Treng’s Srekor and Kbal Romea communes to prepare for floods.

Since the doors’ closure on Saturday morning, water levels at the reservoir have increased by 1 metre. In response, the nearly 700 villagers who have rejected compensation offers to relocate began moving property to safer locations in nearby highlands while also preparing bamboo houses to live in.

“In Srekor, [the Sesan River] is 65 metres with the 1-metre increase,” said Hydropower Lower Sesan II Company representative Um Ret.

Ret said Srekor and Kbal Romea villages could be flooded by up to 3 metres of water during the test period. Therefore, said Ret, the company recommends the villagers evacuate.

Provincial Deputy Governor Duong Pov said the company and provincial authorities held a meeting yesterday morning to discuss flooding prevention and rescue measures. Pov said hundreds of provincial police and Military Police, along with a combined 10 trucks and boats would begin mobilising throughout Srekor and Kbal Romea communes early this week.

Meanwhile, Srekor village representative Fut Khoeun claimed that water levels near the village remained stable. “We are not shocked,” he said.

Thun Ratha, an activist with environmental NGO Mother Nature, said some Kbal Romea villagers began moving property and cattle to a “safe hill” while cutting bamboo to build floating homes.

“Some people continue working on rice plantation as usual,” said Ratha. “They say that they do not oppose the government but [want] to protect their farmland and ancestors’ graveyards and the interests of Cambodians living along the rivers.”

Mother Nature activists speak to villagers yesterday to devise their response to the closing of the gates of the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam. Photo supplied
Mother Nature activists speak to villagers yesterday to devise their response to the closing of the gates of the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam. Photo supplied

As the dam’s doors closed, 20 workers started dismantling the 252-metre Sre Pok Bridge without any protests from locals, according to Provincial Director of Public Works and Transportation Sar Kimnat.

“Before the people did not understand, so they just protested. But now they believe that the bridge is going to be flooded since the provincial authorities had explained it to them already,” Kimnat said.

Kimnat said locals could reach National Road 78 via a 20-kilometre detour on Trapaing Krahorm Road. He added that provincial authorities intended to begin building a new 13-kilometre road from Srekor village to National Road 78 once heavy rains stopped.

However, Kbal Romeas community representative Dam Samnang expressed disappointment at the destruction of the Sre Pok Bridge, saying protests did not occur because locals were busy protecting their property. “This is pressure, the authorities do as they want,” he said. “We are completely losing access to the market, [Chrorp and Stung Treng] towns, and health services while the water rises gradually.”

“It is a long way and if a villager gets sick and cannot reach the hospital in time, he or she will die,” Samnang said.

Bunleap Leang of the 3S Rivers Protection Network criticised the poor notice given villagers of the dam doors’ closure, pointing out that officials told villagers to expect floods in September.

“However the tests began in July, so the people are not prepared for the situation,” he said. “The authorities should be more responsible; we [cannot] leave the people to die in the flood.”

The Ministry of Mines and Energy could not be reached for comment.

Additional reporting by Martin de Bourmont