downstream_280The Sesan River flows through the village of Ratanakiri, a remote province of northeast Cambodia, bringing vital food, hydration and the water in which people wash and play. But since the construction of a chain of dams further up its source in Vietnam, it has also brought disease, flood and disaster, say the villagers of the 12 ethnic minority tribes who have lived along the river’s banks for generations.
Geographically-isolated and making up just two per cent of Cambodia’s population, minority groups including the Jarai, Kreung and Tumpuan peoples have little voice in the nation’s political field, and their complaints of a dramatic increase in potentially fatal diarrhoea, skin diseases and sickness, along with a rise in animal diseases, have largely gone unheeded.
Following the completion of the Yali Fall hydro-dam in Vietnam more than a decade ago, and a further five dams since, the region has undergone a significant decline in water quality, say NGOs who have reported dangerous levels of blue-green algaes and other toxins that gather in the stagnant water of the dam and then travel downstream when the dam waters are released. Fish stocks in the river have been estimated to have fallen by as much as 70 per cent in the past decade.
Sudden rises in water levels, when the dams are opened in Vietnam without warning to the villagers downstream, have been held responsible for a number of drownings, and villagers report that vast stretches of riverbank that had previously provided them with fertile land for vital crop growing have now been washed away.
NGOs working with the ethnic minority peoples in the region say several thousand people have now been displaced as a result and predict more will move away as the problems continue to worsen with construction of several new dams set to begin in the near future.

Text by Fiona MacGregor
Photography by Lianne Milton