Concerns Rise with Planned Lao Dam on Mekong

Andrew Nette
Friday, March 28, 2008

PHNOM PENH, Mar 28 (IPS Asia-Pacific) - The Lao government's decision earlier this year to press ahead with plans to build the Don Sahong dam on the mainstream of the Mekong River in southern Laos is causing major concern in Cambodia and internationally.

The most advanced of eight hydropower projects mooted for the lower Mekong mainstream, the Don Sahong dam is also ramping up pressure on the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the inter-governmental body charged with managing development on the river.

The Cambodian government appears to be taking the issue seriously. The Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen would pay a one-day visit to Laos to meet with regional officials on issues affecting the Mekong River.

Cambodian NGOs this week called upon their government to ask Laos for an immediate construction moratorium on Dong Sahong to allow for an independent transboundary assessment of environmental and social impacts.

In March 2006, the Lao government signed an agreement granting the Malaysian engineering firm Mega First Corp Berhad the exclusive mandate to carry out a feasibility study of the Don Sahong project.

On Feb. 13 this year, the company signed a project development agreement with Vientiane to push ahead with the scheme on a build-own-operate basis.

In a statement to the Malaysian stock exchange, the company said the dam, located in Champassak province two kilometres from the Lao border with Cambodia, would be a run-of-river facility with the capacity to generate between 240 and 360 megawatts of electricity to be sold mainly to Laos and neighbouring countries.

Their statement also said "the feasibility and social/environmental studies of the proposed Don Sahong Project (show it) to be technically and financially viable." Critics are concerned that these studies have not been publicly released.

The dam will be built on the Mekong mainstream at a location known as Khone Falls, where the River forms a complex network of narrow channels, or ‘hoo' in Lao, at the point at which it flows into Cambodia.

The dam will block Hoo Sahong, the deepest channel on that section of the river and the only one migratory fish can easily pass through at the peak of the dry season, April to May, when the water level of the Mekong is at its lowest.

This will effectively block the dry season migration of fish between the feeding habitats of the Tonle Sap Lake and upstream breeding zones in Laos and Thailand, critics say. It is also likely to alter water flow patterns in the immediate downstream area, further disrupting migration patterns for fish species sensitive to changes in water levels.

According to a June 2007 briefing paper by the Phnom Penh-based WorldFish Centre, the Khone Falls supports at least 201 fish species, as well as one of the few remaining concentrations of freshwater dolphins in the Mekong.

"In the absence of detailed design information it is not possible to provide a full assessment of the impact of the proposed Don Sahong dam on the Mekong basin fisheries," the brief stated, although "this review of available information shows that the risks are very high."

While no economic valuation of the amount of fish that pass through the channel in the April to May period has been made, fisheries experts believe it is significant.

According to the WordFish Centre brief, 87 percent of the fish species in the Mekong whose behaviour is known, including some of the most commercially important species, are migratory.

Experts believe that the loss of even small percentage of Cambodia's fisheries catch represents tens of thousands of tonnes and millions of dollars worth of fish.

In an open letter on Don Sahong dam in May 2007, over 30 fisheries scientists stated that Don Sahong "will have grave environmental impacts, particularly on fish and fisheries but also on tourism and other significant aspects of the economy and livelihoods, causing damage that will far exceed net returns from the project".

The Lao government has previously considered the channel of critical importance to migratory fish and specifically banned fishing there at various times in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Informed sources say the project had been the subject of significant discussion in Lao government until the signing of the project development agreement in February put a halt to this.

Don Sahong was the subject of intense debate at a meeting of the Vientiane-based MRC in Siem Reap, Cambodia in November 2007. According to one media report, Cambodian delegates made their frustration clear with what they claimed was a lack of transparency on the part of Laos in relation to the dam.

In response to the February announcement, Lim Kean Hor, Minister for Water Resources and Meteorology and chair of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC), said the MRC is studying the impact of the dam and would release a report at the end of 2008.

"The MRC have not ignored the potential problems with the fisheries on the Cambodian side," he said. "After the study is finished we will talk about the benefits and negatives because it is a multi-purpose project." CNMC officials were unavailable to be interviewed at this time about Don Sahong.

Nao Thuok, director general of Fisheries Administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Phnom Penh, confirmed that there have been discussions between the Cambodian and Lao governments about the potential impacts of the dam.

"We have suggested to Lao counterparts that they should study (Don Sahong) carefully before damming and they promised to do so. We just heard recently that they decided to build the dam soon, so it is not clear what the situation is."

It is understood that the MRC has prepared an analysis of the draft environment impact assessment for Don Sahong and economic valuation of the potential impact on fisheries from the project. These documents have not been publicly released.

The issue will also be discussed at the upcoming Joint Committee meeting of the MRC in Vietnam in early April.

In a letter sent this week to CNMC, Cambodian NGOs have requested that their government ask for a moratorium on the dam construction. "During the moratorium period, a comprehensive and participatory scientific transboundary environmental and social impact assessment must be carried out by an independent party," the letter said.

"As part of this scientific assessment, there should be public consultations and discussion between the countries of the lower Mekong region that examine and assess the future costs and benefits of this project to each country, and the poor and vulnerable communities living in affected areas," it added.

While China has completed two dams on the upper Mekong mainstream and construction on a further much larger project is underway, the lower reaches of the river have remained free from dam development until now.

Of the eight dam projects planned for the lower Mekong mainstream, five are in Laos including Don Sahong, two in Thailand and one in Cambodia.

A Chinese company has been undertaking a feasibility study of the Sambor dam in the central Cambodia, although there are mixed reports as to whether the government intends to move ahead on the project.

The English-language ‘Vientiane' Times reported this week that Laos and Thailand have signed an agreement to allow a private firm to commence feasibility studies into the 1,800-megawatt Ban Kum Kun hydropower dam located on the Mekong mainstream on their border.
"The need for a credible and effective river basin management organisation in the Mekong Region has never been more apparent, yet for the MRC a crisis of legitimacy and relevancy is looming," said a statement signed by 51 citizens' groups and individuals from the six Mekong countries, sent on Mar. 27 to newly appointed MRC Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Bird.

The prospect of extensive hydropower development on the Mekong puts the MRC in a catch-22 situation, said Carl Middleton, a research analyst with Rivers International.

"If the MRC provides advice to government agencies that is perceived as critical of proposed hydropower projects, this advice could be unwelcome, ignored, and then no longer sought, undermining the MRC's relevance in the eyes of the government agencies it considers itself primarily answerable to."

"Yet, by not providing this objective analysis and releasing it into the public domain, as it should do, the MRC faces a crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public that it is also intended to serve," Middleton added. (END/IPS/AP/DV/AN/JS/08)