Reclaiming the Sesan River

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Reclaiming the Sesan RiverRestoring natural flows by modifying hydropower dam operations: International experience and hope for the Sesan River?In order to catch fish before [Yali], we would just put water on the fire and go down to the river and by the time we came back with fish the water would be boiling, by Mr. Em Vuthy, Deputy District Governor of Ta Veng, Sesan River. Photo: Brett Eloff, Oxfam America

Ever since Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) began damming the Sesan River for hydropower, affected communities in downstream Cambodia have grappled with the question: what, if anything, can be done to reduce the worst effects of EVN dam operations? Below, Grainne Ryder suggests that much can be learned from other dammed river systems and that the transboundary Sesan is a prime candidate for dam re-operations to restore natural flows.


ive years ago I had the opportunity to visit a Brao community in northeast Cambodias Ratanakiri province, about an hour by boat upstream of Ta Veng not far from the border with Vietnam. It was harvest time and as we sat with the village elders drinking fermented rice wine, the talk turned to the big dam upstream and how it was affecting their lives. It was mid-1996 when the villagers were first caught off guard by an unusually large and sudden flood caused by Vietnams Yali Falls dam, a large

hydropower facility about 100 kilometres upstream on the Sesan River. The villagers lost livestock and crops to that first flood. Their boats and fishing gear were swept away. And to this day they live in fear of being drowned by a sudden surge in river flow. Daily fluctuations in water levels have eroded their riverbanks, making it difficult to grow crops. There are fewer fish. Some farmers have had to abandon their rice fields due to the rivers extreme and erratic flooding patterns.

Grainne Ryder is a water resources engineer by training and Policy Director of Probe International, a Canadian citizens group which investigates the economic and environmental effects of international aid. She worked with TERRA from 1990 to 1995 and is currently an advisor to Cambodias Sesan-Srepok-Sekong Rivers Protection Network (3SPN), advocating citizens rights and hydropower reform in the Mekong Region.

Page 74 Watershed Vol. 12 No. 3 November 2008

When asked how the village elders wanted to Yet appeals for natural flow restoration have resohandle these problems, there was no hesitation. They nated with government authorities in Cambodia and wanted to talk directly with the dam builder upstream Vietnam. True, EVN has ignored Cambodian appeals to find a solution. Once the dam builder knew the to stop building dams on the upper Sesan, yet Sesan trouble they were causing people downstream they villagers and Cambodian NGOs have managed to perhoped a solution could be found based on discus- suade the Cambodian government to officially resion and mutual respect. One quest a return of Sesans villager even asked if there natural flows on behalf of afwas a way to sue the Vietfected fishing and farming What we really want is the rainy season flow to namese dam owner for comcommunities in Ratanakiri be the rainy season pensation. Another said, and Stung Treng provinces.1 flow, and the dry season What we really want is the And Vietnam has responded, flow to be the dry searainy season flow to be the although not yet satisfactoson flow... We want the rainy season flow, and the dry rily. In 2004, the Vietnam Nanatural flow returned. season flow to be the dry seational Mekong Committee son flow. . . We want the natuannounced that EVN would ral flow returned. build a re-regulating dam, the Getting that profoundly reasonable message Sesan 4A, near the Cambodian border to reduce the across to the dam builder, Electricity of Vietnam damaging fluctuations in river flow caused by Yalis (EVN), hasnt been easy for Sesan villagers or their peaking operations. Then, in July 2007, EVN released advocates. The absence of rules forcing EVN and its first-ever transboundary assessment of the enviother Mekong dam builders to balance their power ronmental impacts of its dams on the upper Sesan production objectives with other river use priorities albeit seven years after the study was first proposed has left riparian communities without effective tools at a meeting facilitated by the Mekong River Comto assert their rights and interests in river manage- mission.2 ment. As Watershed readers know, Vietnam has made Notably, the EVN study, led by Nordic engineerhydropower development along the Mekong tribu- ing consultants, Statkraft Grner and the Norwegian taries it shares with Cambodia a top priority this past Institute for Water Research, explicitly linked ecodecade. EVN now has not one but three large hydro logical impacts along the Cambodian Sesan to the dams operating on the upper Sesan and two more rivers altered hydrological regime since construcunder construction. The state-backed utility enjoys tion of the Yali Falls dam. Relying heavily on village pre-eminent rights to rivers within Vietnamese terri- and NGO documentation and analysis of the probtory over the rights of other riparian users, and over lems, the consultants left no room for doubt about any other public policy objectives. EVN, like other the cause of the problem: Daily changes in the river state power companies in China, Lao PDR, and Thai- flow from [Yali] hydropower project have had the land, operates with almost total impunity for the dam- largest impacts [downstream] and these will not cease ages caused by its hydro operations within and be- unless appropriate mitigation is taken. They exyond its borders. Its also under pressure to expand plained, for example, that when upstream reservoirs power output to meet Vietnams growing demand and are being filled at the onset of the rainy season, alleviate power shortages shortages caused in large lower-than-normal flow releases to downstream mean part by the utilitys over-reliance on drought-prone that fish dont receive an adequate trigger to migrate hydro reservoirs. Under these circumstances, its or may have difficulty reaching their spawning hard to imagine how downstream Cambodians could grounds. And they explained that upstream dams negotiate a return to natural flow conditions in the release water in the wrong quantity and at the wrong Sesan River, particularly if that were to mean reduced time for the rice-growing season downstream, forcelectricity output from the Sesan dams. ing downstream farmers to give up cultivating wet

Watershed Vol. 12 No. 3 November 2008 Page 75

season rice altogether. store natural flows as villagers have requested? The consultants further suggested changes in Dam affected Cambodians are entitled to know dam operations to improve downstream conditions, what is possible: how have dam owners elsewhere citing international practices such as more gradual changed their operations and reduced the worst eframping rates for the turbines, and a more gradual fects of their operations? Only with an understandfilling of Sesan hydro reservoirs at the onset of the ing of what works (potentially) and what has not rainy season to provide more worked can Sesan advocates flow for downstream fish mihope to persuade governgrations. They noted that ment authorities in Cambodia Upstream dams release dam operators in Norway and Vietnam to take mitigawater in the wrong and other European countion and flow restoration sequantity and at the tries are obliged (under their riously. Otherwise, the two wrong time for the rice-growing season concession or licensing governments will devise their downstream, forcing agreements) to release floods own mitigation scheme for downstream farmers to that will trigger the movement the Sesan namely, hydro give up cultivating wet of migratory fish to spawndevelopment along its lower season rice altogether. ing grounds. reach which may serve naThe problem with the tional objectives but will only study is its treatment of the make river conditions that re-regulating dam. The consultants admit they only much worse for more people living along the Sesan learned about EVNs plan for a re-regulating dam as (see Watershed Vol. 12 No. 2). they were finishing their draft report in May 2006 Heres where international experience with flow (construction began in 2004). Yet the consultants restoration in dammed rivers can provide some guidconclude without presenting any verification by ance and encouragement. In countries where large hydrological modelling that the re-regulating dam hydro dams have been in operation for the better part would be the main mitigation measure to relieve prob- of the 20th Century, the practice of restoring some lems caused by daily fluctuations, including riverbank approximation of natural (or environmental) flows erosion, turbidity, and livelihood losses.3 downstream has been proven technically and ecoClearly, further independent analysis is needed. nomically feasible (see Box: Changing hydro dam opNobody (except presumably EVN) knows how ex- erations). actly the re-regulating dam will be operated or to Based on their two decades of flow restoration what effect. In January 2008, Cambodians learned experience in the United States, river experts Brian through the official Vietnam News Agency that Sesan Richter and Greg Thomas write that if hydropower 4A will have three turbines for a total installed gen- dams can be operated to release water on a daily baerating capacity of 63 megawatts (MW) and that the sis at a rate that is closer to the rate of natural inflow project is not scheduled to be completed until July into the reservoir, impacts on downstream ecosys2010, more than ten years after the Yali Falls dam tems can be reduced.4 started operating. In other dam building countries, In Michigan, for example, the Consumers Energy its not uncommon for re-regulating dams to have Comp