Srae Kor, Cambodia - Near this fishing village on the banks of the Sesan River in northern Cambodia, a planned hydroelectric dam threatens to inundate an area almost half the size of Singapore - and submerge seven villages including this one, sparking fury among residents, tempered by fear.
The residents of Srae Kor oppose the dam, which would displace all 420 families from their homes, farms and ancestral burial grounds. However, they are also nervous about campaigning against a project led by a powerful businessman with close ties to much-feared Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has never hesitated to unleash security forces to stamp out any hint of opposition to his plans.
Controversy over the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 dam is the latest battle along Southeast Asia's waterways, which the region's most underdeveloped countries are using to harness energy. But this project stands out as one of the worst proposed dams on the lower Mekong River basin, with activists warning it could threaten livelihoods and trigger a food security crisis, with effects likely to be felt as far away as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Residents say the government is keeping them in the dark and they are relying on radio reports to find out what might happen. Cambodia's Cabinet approved the dam in November 2012. Then in February parliament passed a $781-million guarantee for the purchase of electricity generated by the dam. For the people of Srae Kor, anger and worry are setting in as the project gets under way.
"We have everything we need here so why do we need to leave?" asked Suth Vam, a 56-year-old farmer as he pointed towards the grounds of the local temple built only two years ago and neat houses beyond its lawn.
Yet despite their frustration, fearful villagers refused to take this reporter to another affected village upstream because their boats would have to pass land being cleared in preparation for the dam.
However, in the latest development, local media reported on Friday that logging at the site has been temporarily suspended and a commission will investigate the company clearing the land following accusations of illegal logging.
|Meach Mean is at the forefront of the dam fight [Thin Lei Win]
The villagers also warned against speaking too loudly about reporting on the issue, because in the past journalists had been beaten up by company security guards tipped off by village spies.
The villagers, including their elected chief, have been threatened with arrest and assault for speaking out against the dam, they said.
Development - at what cost?
The Mekong River flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Its basin is the world's biggest inland fishery - providing food and jobs for some 60 million people and valued at an estimated $5.6 billion to $9.4 billion a year - and is second only to the Amazon in biodiversity.
Experts estimate about 30,000 to 50,000 Cambodians rely on the Sesan river - a tributary that contributes a quarter of the Mekong's total flow - for food, water, farming and other needs. The Sesan, along with the Sekong and Srepok rivers to its north and south, form the so-called "3S system" and boast 329 species of fish, or 42 precent of all Mekong fish species.
The Lower Sesan 2 dam would be located 1.5 kilometres downstream from the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok, and 25km before they join the Mekong. It would create a 335-square-km reservoir, according to the project's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
"When compared with other tributary dams and some of the mainstream dams, it would be most detrimental to fish biodiversity and productivity," Leeds University researcher Guy Ziv said.
It would reduce migratory fish stock by almost a tenth - greater than the combined impact of six other controversial dams planned for the lower Mekong basin, including the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam in Laos, said a 2012 paper Ziv co-authored.
The dam's current design would also trap the sediment and nutrients vital for the fertility of the Mekong Delta - a sediment buildup that would decrease the dam's energy production over time, according to Ziv.
Yet experts who have studied the project for the government found that the positive impact from economic development is greater than "a little environmental impact", said government spokesman Ek Tha.
"I am informed by the experts that there would be little impact on migratory fish and sediments, and they already have the answers on how to manage that," he said.
There's no clear information on the resettlement plan or how the community could get compensation, but the process of logging has already started.
"We need to develop our country. We cannot just stand and watch our people complain about blackouts and the high cost of electricity."
Lighting up Cambodia
With energy demand in the Asia-Pacific projected to almost double by 2030, governments and dam developers are moving ahead.
Lower Sesan 2 is a 90 percent joint venture between Cambodia's Royal Group and China's Hydrolancang International Energy. The remaining 10 percent is owned by a subsidiary of state-owned Vietnam Electricity Group.
Royal Group - led by Kith Meng, a Hun Sen ally and the president of the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce - has businesses including hotels, casinos, a bank, an insurance firm, media outlets and telecoms, but this will be its first dam. The company did not respond to emails seeking comment.
In building the dam, Cambodia is exploiting a loophole in rules set out by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a consultative body that works with lower basin countries but has been criticised as lacking teeth. The 1995 Mekong Agreement requires international consultations before constructing mainstream dams, but tributary dams necessitate only a "notification".
Meach Mean from 3S River Protection Network (3SPN), a local organisation working to protect the rivers, said the dam should be considered a transboundary issue as the Sesan flows through Vietnam and Cambodia.
In June, MRC's international donors asked the Cambodian government to voluntarily submit the project to consultation, but activists say the government has yet to respond.
It is also unclear where the electricity would go. The EIA says it would light up surrounding provinces with remaining units sold to Vietnam. Activists say it is likely to be a 50-50 split between Cambodia and Vietnam, however.
"Counting the Cost" - Cambodia dam at 11'30"
Currently only 26 percent of Cambodians have electricity and demand is growing beyond state-owned Electricité du Cambodge's current capacity. Private operators, meanwhile, charge exorbitant sums - $0.25 to $0.70 per kilowatt compared with $0.15 and $0.225 per kilowatt from the state, according to the EIA.
A decentralised system would be the most sustainable option as Cambodia currently lacks a grid, said Ame Tandrem, Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers, which is calling for the dam to be scrapped. The dam would also be operating at only a quarter of its capacity during dry months, when energy demand is highest, she added.
Other alternatives proposed by environmentalists include four smaller dams - three on the Sesan - that would produce a similar amount of energy with much less impact on fisheries and the environment.
Oppose dam? Go to prison
"There's no clear information on the resettlement plan or how the community could get compensation, but the process of logging has already started," Mean from 3SPN said. The promised jobs for locals before the dam's construction have not materialised, added Mean.
We cannot tell our worries and complaints to the authorities, only to civil society. The government does not listen to us.
In another village closer to the proposed dam site, residents found out about the dam only when a boatload of Vietnamese with equipment to check water and soil quality arrived in front of their homes in 2008. They still are not sure if and when they would have to move.
Thann Tim, the area's deputy chief, told them resettlement would occur this year, and dam construction would start in 2014, although he said, "I heard this from VOA [Voice of America radio], not the authorities or the company."
Sa Va, a villager, attended a 2009 meeting arranged by authorities, but he said they handed out equal measures of information and threats.
"We were told we have the right to demand compensation but cannot reject the dam. The man who planned the meeting said those who reject or oppose the dam will face court and go to prison," he said.
Yet villagers in Srae Kor say they will not leave unless they are forced to.
With 3SPN's help, they travelled to Phnom Penh to lobby lawmakers, who told them there was little they could do.
"We cannot tell our worries and complaints to the authorities, only to civil society," Srae Kor's deputy chief Beng Teng said. "The government does not listen to us."
A version of this story first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation news service