Infrastructure is often introduced using basic facts. For instance, the Lower Sesan 2 Dam is Cambodia’s largest dam, located on the Sesan River, which is a major tributary of the Mekong. Other key pieces of information are that the project was approved in 2012, became operational in 2018, and has since directly displaced some 5,000 local villagers from their homelands and flooded more than 30,000 hectares. The 400-megawatt facility is now owned by a Chinese, Cambodian, and Vietnamese joint venture and, although plans for the project long pre-date the existence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is now labelled a BRI project (Mahanty 2021).
Yet, the numbers we use to describe a dam’s impact—hectares under water, number of people displaced, tonnes of fish lost—are often inadequate or ‘flat’ (Sousanis 2015). Numbers cannot convey the enormity and complexity of transformation that is wrought by megaprojects such as the Lower Sesan 2 Dam. Nor can they convey how contestation continues over this dam, in relation to indigenous resettlement, livelihoods, resources, human rights violations, and cumulative environmental impacts (HRW 2021). Take, for instance, the terrifying failure of the Tonle Sap flood pulse in recent years (Fawthrop 2020). This floodplain lake is Asia’s largest freshwater fishery, and it depends on monsoonal inflows from rivers like the Sesan and Mekong. The Lower Sesan 2 Dam has contributed to this emerging crisis.
Sarah Milne is a senior lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. Since gaining her PhD in Geography from the University of Cambridge (2010), Sarah has studied natural resource politics in a range of settings. Most of her work has focused on Cambodia, where she has been active as an environmentalist and advocate since 2002. Sarah’s latest publication explores local experiences of violence around hydropower dams in the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia.
Sango Mahanty is a Professor in the Resources, Environment, and Development Program at The Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. She is a critical geographer who studies the politics of green economies, frontier markets, and nature–society transformations in Cambodia and Vietnam. Sango’s upcoming book, Unsettled Frontiers: Market Formation in the Cambodia–Vietnam Borderlands (Cornell University Press, 2022), explores these related themes within this rapidly changing region. Her current research is studying how communities and civil society respond to nature–society ruptures at hydropower dam sites in mainland Southeast Asia, including the Lower Sesan 2 Dam.
Thomas Cristofoletti is an Italian freelance photographer and videographer. Based in Cambodia since 2012, he has been focusing his work on human rights and environmental issues in the region. His photographs and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, and South China Morning Post.
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