Living and working in Cambodia since 2000, John Vink has borne witness to its rapid economic progress and the effects of this, both positive and negative, on the population. As a country that continues to be plagued by corruption at all levels of society, its economic development has not been immune to this, with the drive for economic growth and modernization often taking precedence over the welfare of its citizens. From 2013 to 2014, Vink documented the beginning stages of the construction of a huge hydropower dam, the Lower Sesan 2 project, across the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, tributaries of the Mekong River, and home to thousands of people who have, or will be, forced to relocate as a result of the project.
The Lower Sesan 2 project is Cambodia’s most ambitious dam project to date, and when completed is projected to be 75 metres tall, span 8 kilometres, and generate 400 megawatts of power daily. On the surface, the dam appears to be an environmentally conscious answer to help facilitate the country’s continued economic growth, however the project is allegedly riddled with corruption.
"Cambodia is developing fast, creating radical social shifts"
- John Vink
Vink explains: “Cambodia is developing fast, creating radical social shifts. The country needs ever increasing numbers of megawatts to feed its growth. Cambodia has rivers, particularly in the more mountainous terrain of the Stung Treng and Ratanakiri provinces. The solution to provide for more energy by building hydropower dams might seem obvious. Unfortunately, this is a country where corruption and not accountability is the norm.”
In 2014 forest monitors observing the clearing of 30,000 hectares of forest, to make way for the dam’s reservoir, were convinced that the area was being used to launder illegally sourced wood from the North, with truckloads of luxury timber leaving it every day. With the dam now due to begin operating next year, the developers and government are facing a battle with the thousands of locals whose homes and livelihoods will be engulfed by the river.
"The mostly indigenous communities living along the rivers have not been thoroughly consulted about the profound impact the dams will have on their life"
- John Vink
Despite attempts to buy them out, the pull of tradition and culture, with many families having lived here for generations, is proving stronger than any sum of money. As Vink observed, “Plans to build a series of dams along the Mekong tributaries in the northeastern province are going ahead despite protest from the local population and environmental organizations. The mostly indigenous communities living along the rivers have not been thoroughly consulted about the profound impact the dams will have on their life and the ecosystem they are living in.”