The Lower Sesan II dam in Cambodia's Stung Treng province has resulted in inundation of seasonal wetlands, relocation and the fragmentation of local communities. Previously self-sufficient communities are struggling as they become low-income wage labor in distant cities but face mounting debts, economic insecurity, homesickness, and mental stress. Community leaders are striving to invest in education for local youth to gain a better future.
Stung Treng province, meaning "river of reeds" in the Khmer language, is where the Mekong River enters Cambodia from Laos. The border area is home to the ethnic Bunong and a mix of Khmer and Lao communities. The geographic remoteness of the region has meant that, historically the people living here have remained distant from centralized governance. But over the last few decades, the central government and developers have eyed the area for commercial development especially hydropower with the construction of the Don Sahong dam (across the border in Lao PDR) and the Lower Sesan II dam in Cambodia. These dam developments have affected the lives and livelihoods of the local communities in Stung Treng province.
At 75 meters high, the Lower Sesan II dam is not particularly tall but spans over six kilometers in width, creating a reservoir inundating 30,000 hectares of land, mainly forests, and wetlands used by the local communities. Officially started operations in December 2018, the dam provides 400 megawatts (MW) of electricity at peak capacity, amounting to approximately one-sixth of Cambodia’s annual electricity production (as of 2021).
China’s Huaneng Group, the company responsible for designing and constructing the dam, has branded the project as “green energy” and sharing the successful experience of "the Chinese way of poverty alleviation." According to the Royal Government of Cambodia, the Sesan II dam is aimed to alleviate the country’s power shortages and energy imports.
However, among the local communities, the Sesan II dam is a different story altogether given that the dam has already led to the relocation of more than 5,000 indigenous ethnic people.
Sokhem, a Bunong man in his early 30s residing in Kbal Romeas village, recounts his efforts to defend his village from being displaced. He has attended more than 20 trainings regarding land laws and community work to equip himself with the knowledge and skills for advocacy and community empowerment. He recalls the distant trip that he and other community members made to the country’s capital Phnom Penh when they heard about the dam plans, and to voice their concerns about the dam’s impacts on their cultures and lives.
He said: “At first, I was afraid. We feared confronting the police and the provincial government.” However, Sokhem was not deterred, he joined many protests against the dam during 2015-2016 along with 400 mostly ethnic people comprising residents from Stung Treng, Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, and Preah Vihear provinces accompanied by Buddhist monks. The group marched in the main cities in these provinces and reached Phnom Penh where they submitted their petition about their concerns, and asked for a halt to the dam and the relocation efforts to the National Assembly.
However, their protests had the opposite effect; the government increased intensive surveillance over their villages. The police filed court cases against four people. Ultimately, the protests were in vain as the government went ahead with dam construction.
Physical displacement, resource competition, and impoverishment
An report released by Human Rights Watch in 2021 projected that the dam project would result in severe environmental and economic impacts. It stated that the dam would displace large numbers of people mainly to areas with low-quality farmland and affect their fishing and farming incomes seriously and permanently. Despite the study foreseeing massive adverse effects, in particular, the relocation of 300,000 people in fishing communities both upstream and downstream, the project went ahead.
Before relocation, the indigenous communities lived on fishing and farming, collecting various non-timber products from the community forests including fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, medicinal plants, nuts, sap, and resin. They sold some excess products in the local markets, using the cash income as supplementary to their subsistence livelihoods.
But after relocation by the dam, Sokhem has found life difficult in the new surroundings. He cannot fish and farm as before and cannot find income even as their daily expenses increase. The forests and wetlands that the communities used are now inundated all year. The farmland in the resettlement area is rocky and inferior to their previous nutrient-rich soft soil near the riverbank. Also, the water from the well is polluted and unusable so people need to spend money to buy water. Without the products from the forest and the river, Sokhem has to pay for food, clean water, and other expenses, which costs him at least 10,000 Riel (equivalent to US$ 2.5 per day).
For many ethnic communities, fishing is a primary source of food and cash income. The communities put up fish traps on the river and streams at various hours of the day, and the entire section of the river and riverbanks are accessible for fishing. But once the dam was built, the nature of the fishing ground and access changed with the flooded reservoir becoming a competing ground for many fishers using a range of fishing equipment and techniques.
For Sokhem, his newly relocated house is far from the river, so he needs to commute for fishing, which costs money for gasoline in his motorbike. After reaching the reservoir, he also needs to row out from the shore to the center of the reservoir. Compared to before, fishing is no longer a flexible work that can be done near his home at any time. It has become a job that requires money, time, and effort while also taking time away from family tasks.
From a collective lifestyle toward an individualized market economy
With the increased cost of living after relocation, communities need to find more ways of getting cash income, turning from their previously self-subsistent livelihoods into wage laborers.
In Sokhem's village, young people migrate in groups to work in banana, cashew, rubber, or fruit plantations in Stung Treng and nearby provinces. They usually find work as seasonal migrant workers for one to three months, then return home while the next group from another village departs on the same journey. Each trip earns them about 20,000-30,000 Riels (equivalent to US$ 5-7.5) each day per person. Some people also migrate and live in fishing huts near the river or become construction workers in towns and cities.
Many villagers have also taken the risky step of borrowing money from microfinance companies to start small businesses such as grocery stores, clothes shops, and restaurants. This new opportunity is more available in the relocation areas since it is less geographically remote with better road access. However, the risks of business failure and not being able to pay their debts is becoming a serious concern.
The resettlement areas are based on private property ownership. Before relocation, the villager lived on ancestral lands and forests, sharing these areas based on cooperative rules. After resettlement, as compensation, they received five hectares of land for each household and a receipt stating their house number in the new village. This house registration facilitates loans without a land title. But debts are rising as people borrow often without much knowledge of how principal and interest repayments work or without prospects of repayment without a stable income. In 2022, only a couple of families were in debt; now that number has risen to ten.
Rising income inequality, falling community solidarity
In the new resettlement areas, Sokhem observes changes in social interactions among neighbors. Previously, people raised cows and buffaloes to help with farming. After the harvest was done, they would release the animals to graze freely in the open fields. They never had a problem with their livestock. However, in the new village, Sokhem cannot let his livestock loose as before. He loses their tracks after a few days and often sees some of them dead. He has reported the case of stealing and killing of his livestock to the police, but no action has ever been taken.
This is an impact of resettlement as communities are fragmented and social trust among neighbors is lost.
Loss of the flood cycle impacts wetlands, fisheries and local livelihoods
Once the Don Sahong hydropower station started operations in 2018, the cumulative impacts of the dam was felt combined with other upstream dams operating in the Lancang-Mekong in China all the way to Laos and across the border into Cambodia.
A media report in January 2023 showed that the release of water from upstream dams disturbs the regular flooding and receding cycles of water in the wetlands and flooded forests in Stung Treng. The inundation and prolonged water levels prevent trees from drying out during the dry season; Up to 50 percent of the wetland’s large trees have died compared to the previous two decades. The Stung Treng flooded forests are recognized as ecologically important wetlands with unique biodiversity under UNESCO’s Ramsar Convention.
The irregular flooding contributing to the loss of the seasonal wetland flood cycle and fish habitats has also affected fish migrations. Local fishers state that fish populations have decreased in recent years. The irregular flooding cycle also drives riverbank dwellers away from their homes.
"We feel scared whenever the river suddenly goes up, especially during the rainy season," said Bopha, a single mother of six who used to live on Koh Pnov island just six kilometers downstream from the dam.
"We can't make a living on the island because of the dam. We are unable to catch fish or farm crops anymore," Bopha added. Now she has no choice but to ask her children to buy land in O’svay commune for her to live. The O'svay commune is a small town on the riverside with schools and health care facilities. Moving from the island to the town makes her life easier as her two kids, studying in grades 5 and 7, can go to school. Also as she grows older, she is able to visit the town hospital.
However, this convenience comes with a negative side: increased debt. Bopha took loans from private lenders and microfinance institutes to buy land and build a house in the town. The responsibility to pay back the loan is borne by her son
The biodiversity along the stretch of Mekong River across the Lao-Cambodia border is used to provide ecotourism opportunities. The flooded forest’s iconic landscape – tentacle-like branches wrapping around big trees – along with its flora and fauna including dolphins creates a beautiful, mystical atmosphere making it an attractive spot for international tourists. However, as the trees die from the inundation (and the last of the Irrawaddy Dolphins died recently), ecotourism projects in the area are disappearing.
Nimith, who heads the Community-based Eco-tourism (CBET) in Preah Rumkel commune, downstream of the Don Sahong Dam, said that income from ecotourism helps to support his family of ten.
"The goal of our CBET is to raise awareness of protecting the biodiversity, consisting of the Mekong River, the flooded forests, and other wildlife," said Nimith whose project is an experiment for alternative livelihood options besides fishing and farming to improve the local economy.
The CBET is run collectively by eight villages in the commune. It generates revenue purely from the services provided to the tourist, without any financial support from the government or other civil society groups. The members of CBET offer boat trips, local transportation, locally-made food, and accommodation to visitors for bird-watching, hiking, and river journeys. A number of people benefit directly and indirectly from tourism earnings for travel, grocery stores, eateries, and guesthouses.
But as the place loses its natural charms, ecotourism incomes are dropping. As alternative livelihood options dry up, the younger generations are leaving the village in search of work in Phnom Penh and also across the border to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, China, or South Korea. In his commune alone, 70 people have moved out for work, almost two-thirds without proper documents as local agents and brokers facilitate the migration process. Nimith now worries about his children's future.
Migration and cultural changes in the village
To Sokhem, the travel to distant Phnom Penh to protest against the dam in those years during its construction was an opportunity to observe how local knowledge and community cooperation can be used to voice local concerns and effect changes at the national level. Even though the local communities failed to stop the dam, their efforts have changed him from someone hesitant to speak to a leader who wants to make a difference.
However, Sokhem observed many cultural changes that reflect the erosion of collective ties among the young generation after they moved to the resettlement site, which is close to the main road (National Road No. 78) and the market.
"Young people see fashionable clothing and smartphones in the market. They also have electricity to access the internet and social media. They compare their lifestyles with others and feel the need for money,” he said.
In Sokhem's village, the young generation tries to keep their collective practices to help each other during the long journeys to find work and rely on traditional kinship and community networks to support them mentally and physically. They usually migrate in groups of four to six persons from the same village to find work in plantations. They eat and live together and look after each other in the new work areas. Also, they do short, seasonal migrations lasting up to three months, and try to find work not too far from home within Stung Treng province.
However, the challenge becomes significant for those who migrate further to other provinces and cities. Chevy, the daughter of Bopha, relocated to Phnom Penh around eight years ago as a teenager.
"I went to earn both new skills and money to help my mother," said Chevy. In Phnom Penh, she found work as a tailor of traditional Cambodian silk dresses.
"I came very far to find work here; I miss my mother,” she lamented. Living away from home, she needs to take care of herself and notices that everything takes money. "I need money for everything. It’s not like in our village where we grow food by ourselves."
Besides her expenses, she shares the debt for her mother's relocation from the island to the village with three other siblings who also migrated to Phnom Penh. "It will take a long time for us to save enough money to build her a house," she said. She returns to O'svay commune only once a year, during Khmer New Year, its her only chance to unite with friends and relatives. She calls her mother on the cellphone daily as a comfort for her homesickness.
Uncertain future awaits the younger generation
Nimith remarks that those who migrate from his village to Phnom Penh work as laborers in garment factories, restaurant servers, and shop salespersons while some find work in Thailand's agricultural and fishery industries or factories and domestic work.
Although these are jobs at the lowest rung of the labor market, with their limited education, they have little choice. In these kinds of work, migrant workers face exploitation, marginalization, and a sense of being at the mercy of their employers. They work long hours in harsh environments, receive meager salaries, and often are cheated of money while having little say over their work.
Many have migrated hoping to improve their family's livelihood; some even get into severe debt. The feelings of deprivation tend to induce frustration and a sense of alienation. They endure heavy mental strain because they cannot afford to not make any income.
"The migrant workers who fail to bring back good income often face mental health issues," said Nimith.
However, the development is frustrating as well for the youth who stay in the villages. As there is little sign of prosperity in their hometown, the feeling of despair combined with easy access to alcohol and addictive substances, results in the younger generations losing their sense of direction. While migration poses massive uncertainty, staying in the village means little opportunity for income.
The loss of access to communal property and traditional livelihoods compels local people in Stung Treng to move away from their self-sufficient livelihoods to face the uncertainties of the migrant labor market. A good education is crucial to succeeding in the migrant labor market. But this takes financial investment.
"In my heart, I want my son to be a doctor and my daughter to be a teacher. But I am worried that I cannot support them," said Bopha, who only attended grade 1 and found herself of little help with her kids' homework. "If they finish state school and I don't have the money, I don’t know what to do."
Pursuing higher education has become a necessity for the local youth to compete in modern society, as it is not something that their parents can pass down to them. They must equip themselves with the necessary skills and knowledge. Fortunately, they do not need to struggle alone.
"It is impossible [after the dam] to go back and live in our traditional ways," said Sokhem who volunteers as a teacher in his community.
"I want to help the next generation receive a good education so that they can fight for a better future."
Both young and old generations of the ethnic communities in Stung Treng and other remote parts of northeast Cambodia are facing a huge number of challenges after the dam was built. Other than socio-economic and cultural, other issues such as mental health are also of concern for young people (but due to constraints, these topics were explored in this article).
Cambodia’s economy is shifting from agriculture towards a service-oriented and industrial economy, in the name of economic growth and national prosperity. But it is critical to consider the social and ecological impacts caused by hydropower and other industrial projects especially when they disproportionately affect minorities and marginalized communities.
**Names in this article have been changed to pseudonyms to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the individuals involved.**
Lucy Chang is an independent researcher based in Taiwan, holding a master's degree in sociology from the National Taiwan University and a master’s degree in social enterprise from Fujen Catholic University. With a background in social impact assessment, Lucy is passionate about promoting sustainable development and improving the lives of people in marginalized communities. She has worked in Cambodia and is particularly interested in the transboundary influence of China in Southeast Asia.
Vutha Srey is an independent researcher based in Cambodia. He specializes in the field of environmental protection, human rights, and sustainable development. He also works as a translator and field coordinator for international news agencies including Mongabay News, The Guardian, CBS News, South China Morning Post, The Economist, National Geographic, Business Insider, and New Naratif.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.