Since the construction of the Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam was completed, over 55,000 people in Cambodia and Vietnam have been severely affected. Livelihoods have been devastated as the Sesan River, which used to bring food, water, baths, and play, now brings disease, toxins, and flooding.
For more than a decade, Cambodian villagers, along with their livestock and fish, have been dying of disease, while flash floods overtake their rice fields. The dam has widely been criticized, especially for the lack of prior discussion with Cambodian officials. However, despite this criticism, Vietnam has continued building dams across the Sesan.
Madison, Wis.-based photojournalist Lianne Milton has firsthand experience with the dam’s effects. Her photo essay, “Downstream” highlights the plight of Cambodian villagers. She shared some of the story with us:
I’ve been eying the Mekong Delta for a while. Then, a Scottish writer/friend pitched the story to me, and of course I said yes. We departed on a 14-hr long bumpy bus ride to the northeastern province of Ratanikiri in search of the Sesan River. The Sesan is one of the largest tributaries in the Mekong Delta. Hydropower dams have caused detrimental environmental and health issues in this region of Cambodia.
It was in the middle of April, the hottest time to be in Cambodia. Over 100 degrees. Not to mention that after it rains, enormous red flying ants come out and are everywhere. By next morning, the roads would be covered with a crunchy red hue. By the end of that week, I was actually used to these bugs, which is unusual for me coming from the San Francisco (where, in my mind, bugs don’t exist).
Its quite beautiful up there. Gorgeous rust-color soil. But the forest is disappearing, from illegal logging and from the effects of the dam. Villagers are forced to look for other means to survive. Flash floods from the dams during heavy rain storms wash away rice patties, so the villagers now slash and burn parts of the forest to replace with rubber trees. Also, the water quality has significantly worsened. That river is their livelihood. It’s where they fish for food, drink the water, bathe, wash their clothes, transport by canoe. Now villagers are getting sick. And because they are uneducated—or better, because they rural villagers—all they know is that their traditional medicines cannot treat these new illnesses.
Now, somewhat ironically, Vietnam is facing its own issues as Laos plans to build a hydropower dam across the major current of the Mekong River. Vietnamese scientists and environmental groups are protesting the project.