As recently as 2007, there was no effective warning system in place to notify Sesan river communities in Ratanakkiri province about the release of water by upstream Vietnamese dams, according to a US diplomatic cable released last week.
Local villagers have long complained that the dams caused sudden, destructive floods that have killed people and livestock, destroying homes and farms, while water quality and fish stocks have also sharply declined in the Sesan.
Officials said yesterday that an improved warning system has been put in place in recent years, but a local NGO worker in Ratanakkiri said flood warnings still rarely reach villagers.
In a cable, published by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks and created in September 2007 in the name of former Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, the embassy described an “extremely inefficient communication system within Cambodia.”
Yun Chetana, then-director of the Ratanakkiri provincial resources department, explained to embassy officials the warning system then in place: A Vietnamese fax warning of a dam discharge was sent via Phnom Penh to the provincial post office in Banlung, where it would remain several days before being collected by Mr Chetana’s department, which had no fax. Only then would Mr Chetana send a motorcycle taxi to district officials warning them of dam releases. The district officials would then inform villagers.
The cable also said provincial officials readily dismissed concerns over the social and environmental impacts of the Vietnamese dams developed since the 1990s, or the expected impacts of the numerous dams planned on the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Cambodia National Mekong Committee Deputy Secretary-General Watt Botkosal said that currently, Vietnamese faxes in English go directly to the CNMC and the provincial governor’s office, after which the CNMC will relay the message to provincial water resources departments.
He said Vietnam has agreed to notify Cambodia of any planned water release 15 days in advance, although Vietnamese officials are frequently late, resulting in only a week’s notice or less.
You La, director of Ratanakkiri’s provincial water resource department, said his office now receives the Vietnamese message, translated from English into Khmer by the CNMC, after a couple days via fax. Then, he said, it is disseminated to district and commune officials via phone or human carrier.
However, Meach Mean, coordinator for the 3S-Rivers Network based in Banlung, said that despite the supposed communication improvements since 2007, villagers had received no warning ahead of major floods in recent years.
“We saw the floods in 2008, 2009 and 2010, but we didn’t get any warning,” he said.
Mr Mean said there had been no government warning in September 2009, when Typhoon Ketsana struck and massive flash floods—believed to have come from discharging Vietnamese dams—destroyed more than 100 homes and thousands of hectares of crops, while dozens of animals and several people drowned.
“Sometimes people up and downstream call each other on the phone [to warn of floods]. It’s faster than an official message,” he said.
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