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Building a Dam

John Vink’s images capture the construction of Cambodia's controversial Lower Sesan 2 Dam project

John Vink

John Vink Logs of precious timber loaded on to a trailer by villagers whose homes will be flooded by the Sesan 2 dam, forcing them to relocate. The timber located in the reservoir area can be logged legally (...)

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.

John Vink Workers heading for lunch during their midday break on the construction site of the Sesan 2 Dam, which will affect the livelihoods and food supplies of five villages along the Sesan and Srepok Rive (...)
John Vink Workers marking the spot where a a rubber tree will be planted on part of the Siv Guek Investment Company's 90 hectare concession, near the Sesan 2 Dam. Kbal Romea, Stung Treng, Cambodia. March 13, (...)
John Vink Workers clear wood for the 90 hectares of rubber-tree plantation, which will be part of the Siv Guek Investment Company's concession near the Sesan 2 Dam. Kbal Romea, Stung Treng, Cambodia. March 1 (...)
John Vink Three year old rubber trees on the 90 hectare plantation, which will be part of the Siv Guek Investment Company's concession near the Sesan 2 Dam. Kabul Romea, Stung Treng, Cambodia. March 13, 2013. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

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.

John Vink Fish at the market. Construction of hydropower power dams along the stream and its tributaries will likely have a major impact on fish spawning and the quantity of fish available for consumption. F (...)
John Vink Vendors selling fish on the wharf to people on a ferry crossing the Mekong. The construction of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong and its tributaries will profoundly affect the fish stocks available (...)

"Cambodia is developing fast, creating radical social shifts"

- John Vink
John Vink A fisherman getting ready to throw his net for an evening catch in the Sesan River. The fish stocks, vital for this indigenous Tampuon community, will likely be depleted by the construction of the (...)

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.”

John Vink A forest burned down to make way for a cassava field. Enormous areas of land have been granted as a concession to agro-industrial companies, destroying vast tracts of forest and replacing them with (...)

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.

John Vink A hairdresser in a village, which is under direct threat of being destroyed to make way for the reservoir of the Sesan 2 Dam. Construction of the dam was recently approved by the National Assembly. (...)
John Vink Water level meters on the Sesan River. The water released by the Yali dam in Vietnam has a big effect on the levels, making land cultivation on the shores of the Sesan practically impossible. In 20 (...)

"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
John Vink Child resting in a restaurant. Ratanakkiri, Cambodia. February 20, 2013. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

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.”

John Vink Villagers spreading banners promoting the preservation of the Srepok River, before a ceremony at the water spirit's house located near the river's rapids, on which the Lower Srepok dam construction (...)
John Vink A banner. Poum Thmey, Mondulkiri, Cambodia. March 14, 2013. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Villagers dancing next to the pagoda the evening before a demonstration against the construction of the Sesan 2 Dam. Sre Kor, Stung Treng, Cambodia. February 27, 2013. © John Vink | Magnum Photos