Laos Begins Work on a Second Mekong River Dam

Sunday, September 2, 2012

For Immediate Release: September 3, 2012

Mekong River near the Don Sahong Dam site

Bangkok, Thailand – The Lao government has begun work on its second hydropower project on the Mekong River, the 260-380 MW Don Sahong Dam, despite unresolved concerns with the Xayaburi Dam. In August, International Rivers visited the Don Sahong Dam site, located in Laos less than 2 km from the Cambodian border. Activities are already underway at the dam site, even though the project has not yet undergone the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) prior consultation process, as required under the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

Ms. Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers, visited the Don Sahong Dam site and observed, “Villagers reported that the dam builders have already blasted a waterfall near the Don Sahong Dam site. Lao officials have told the villagers that they will not be allowed to fish with Ly fishing gear in the area beginning in 2014. The dam’s construction and the end of Ly fishing is a major concern because local people depend so heavily on fishing for their livelihoods.”

The Don Sahong Dam is being built by Malaysian company Mega First Corporation Berhad near the iconic Khone Falls of the Mekong River. According to the MRC’s 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), the dam would block the only section of the Mekong River where fish can pass during the dry season, called the Hou Sahong channel. The SEA noted that “the Don Sahong project would represent an impassable barrier to Mekong dry season fish migration.” According to local villagers, last year the project company blasted the waterfall at the Hou Xang Pheuak channel, in order to create a new 5 meter wide channel in the river that is intended to become a fish passage. Currently, fish are able to migrate through the 50-100 meter wide Hou Sahong channel year-round. The SEA report confirms that fishery experts have concluded that no fish mitigation technology exists to effectively mitigate the threat that mainstream dams, including the Don Sahong Dam, pose to the Mekong’s fisheries.

Traditional "ly" fishing trap

“The proposed Don Sahong Dam would spell disaster for the Mekong’s fisheries,” said Ms. Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers. “The dam would block vital fish migrations and decimate the livelihoods of local people who depend on fish for their food security. Like the Xayaburi Dam, the impacts would be transboundary.”

In May, Mega First announced that the Don Sahong Dam’s environmental impact assessment had been approved by the Lao government and that it was close to signing a power purchase agreement with the government for a 30 year concession.  The environmental impact assessment has not been publicly disclosed. According to an evaluation of potential impacts of mainstream hydropower dams on Mekong fisheries published by the MRC in 1994, the Khone Falls area was described as “an ecologically unique area that is essentially a microcosm of the entire lower Mekong River,” and pointed out that “Such a site is so rare in nature that every effort should be made to preserve all of Khone Falls [Siphandone] from any development.”

“We can already see Laos repeating the same tricks that it has used with the Xayaburi Dam,” said Ms. Deetes. “This is going to happen again and again until the MRC governments decide to take action. Before time runs out, it’s crucial that the MRC governments, secretariat, and donors call for an immediate stop to activities at both dam sites.”“As we have seen with the Xayaburi Dam, the Lao government will undoubtedly claim that the blasting of the Hou Xang Pheuak channel for the Don Sahong Dam is only ‘preparatory work’ that does not require consultations with neighboring countries, despite its environmental impacts,” said Ms. Trandem. “In reality, all activities that can harm the river must first be approved by the MRC, including channel excavation work.” 

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The proposed Don Sahong Hydropower Project is located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Khone Falls area (also known as Siphandone) of southern Laos, less than 2 km upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border. The Don Sahong Dam would create a barrier across the Hou Sahong channel that would be between 30 and 32 meters high and generate between 260-380 MW of electricity, mainly for export to Thailand or Cambodia. The project’s developer is Mega First Corporation Berhad of Malaysia (MFCB).  U.S. company AECOM carried out the project’s environmental impact assessment and is serving as the Owner’s Engineer.  

Like the Xayaburi Dam, the project must first undergo the prior consultation process of the Mekong River Commission before it can go forward. The prior consultation process, under the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), requires the Lao government to consult with the governments of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with an aim to reach a consensus on whether or not the project should proceed. With the Xayaburi project, Laos has argued that “preparatory work” does not fall within the PNPCA but has not defined what it means by this term. The MRC governments have not reached agreement on this interpretation.    

In March 2006, MFCB signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Laos to prepare feasibility studies for the project. Subsequently, in February 2008, a Project Development Agreement was signed that authorized MFCB to enter into advanced negotiations and finalize the project details with the Government of Laos and potential electricity buyers. MFCB reported that the dam’s final Environmental Impact Assessment report was approved by the Government of Laos in April 2012. 

While the Don Sahong Dam’s final Environmental Impact Assessment has not yet been released to the public, the dam is expected to block the migration of many commercial fish species during the dry season. The loss of fish biomass will impact livelihoods and commercial fisheries in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, with repercussions for food security and the region’s economies. In the vicinity of the dam site, many families use a traditional type of wing trap fishing, called Ly, which involves setting traps to catch fish that migrate through the channels. Families can earn around $6,000 per year through Ly fishing, and have passed this traditional knowledge through generations. Villagers reported that this type of fishing will be made illegal near the dam site beginning in 2014.  According to the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, Mega First will also need to excavate approximately 1.9 million cubic meters of sediment from the riverbed of the Hou Sahong channel in order to build the dam, the equivalent of 95,000 truckloads. The excavation would require the use of dynamite or explosives, which would also have a devastating impact on fish habitats and the river’s ecosystem.  Furthermore, the dam risks jeopardizing the last remaining population of Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos, as well as diverting water from the spectacular Khone Phapheng waterfall, undermining the area’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination.  

The blasting by Mega First reportedly took place late last year on the Hou Xang Pheuak channel, in order to destroy a waterfall and build a 5 meter wide channel for fish to pass through year-round, as an attempt to create an alternative to the 50 to 100 meter wide Hou Sahong channel. Local villagers are forbidden from fishing in this new channel.