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A Chinese-financed dam in Cambodia, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, has been a human rights “disaster” for indigenous and ethnic minority communities, according to a report published on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch claims the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 dam at the confluence of two tributaries of the Mekong, “washed away the livelihoods” of communities that relied on fishing, forest-gathering and farming when the areas upstream were flooded.
“The Lower Sesan 2 dam has profoundly harmed local communities, leaving them poorer and worse off,” the advocacy group said.
The plight of such people is being repeated in varying degrees across the vast Mekong river delta as the construction of scores of dams affects the fragile fishing and farming ecosystem upon which tens of millions of people rely, experts said.
“More than 400 large dams built across the Mekong’s mainstream and tributaries are delivering a death of a thousand cuts to the mighty river’s fisheries since dams block migratory fish passage and are putting the region on the edge of a food crisis,” said Brian Eyler, south-east Asia director with the Stimson Center think-tank and author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.
“The Mekong is home to the world’s largest inland fishery — responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater fish catch — upon which tens of millions of people in mainland south-east Asia rely for their daily protein intake,” Eyler added.
Criticism of the Lower Sesan 2 dam highlights broader concerns over a Chinese dam building programme that forms a mainstay of the Belt and Road Initiative, the signature foreign policy gambit of Xi Jinping, China’s leader. More than 10 large Chinese hydropower projects are under way or completed in BRI countries such as Indonesia, Uganda, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Georgia.
According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 5,000 local people were displaced by the Lower Sesan 2 project, the largest in Cambodia, which it says also “impacts on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of others upstream and downstream”.
People who were moved to make way for the dam were coerced into accepting inadequate compensation, provided with poor housing and services at resettlement sites, and given no training in other ways to earn a living. Fishery yields have also plummeted, the report added.
The China Huaneng Group, the dam’s largest shareholder, did not reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment. In a statement earlier this year it said: “The Lower Sesan 2 Power Plant project was approved by the Cambodian government, and the project company strictly followed the development agreement while fulfilling its due obligations.”
The Human Rights Watch report accused the Cambodian government of Hun Sen of pushing the project forward in the face of widespread local opposition.
However, Siphan Phay, a government spokesman, rejected this. “The indigenous and minority communities will share the benefit of these developments,” he said. “Their livelihoods will be integrated into main society — health, education and other norms of modern ways of life.”
The Lower Sesan 2 dam was built and operated by state-owned Huaneng, with Cambodia’s Royal Group and a unit of Vietnamese state-owned utility EVN holding minority stakes.
Work on the dam began in 2013, and was completed in 2018, boosting Cambodia’s power production by 20 per cent. Most of the financing for the project, reportedly budgeted at $800m, was provided by Chinese government banks.