Laos' Trial and Error Approach Threatens the Mekong

Monday, November 11, 2013


Fishers, south of Don Khone Island, Laos
Fishers, south of Don Khone Island, Laos

Bangkok, Thailand: Today a site visit is taking place to the Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos, which has been organized by the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Lao National Mekong Committee. This visit is an attempt to sell the project to neighboring countries despite the absence of a regional agreement or proven measures to mitigate environmental or social impacts of the project. International Rivers is concerned that the Don Sahong Dam poses significant risks to the future of the Mekong River and to regional cooperation.

“The Don Sahong project follows in the dangerous footsteps of the Xayaburi Dam. Laos has become adept at claiming sustainability and simply plowing ahead in their potentially catastrophic Mekong mainstream dams,” said Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ Southeast Program Director. “Their latest attempt to greenwash the Don Sahong Dam cannot hide the environmental and political injustices of the project."

The Xayaburi Dam is now approximately 13% complete and despite repeated calls from international donors, final project designs have not been released to neighboring countries or opened up for public scrutiny, leaving unanswered questions over concerns about the credibility of the project’s proposed mitigation measures.

Following the dangerous precedent set by the Xayaburi Dam, Laos has ignored advice provided by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat that the Don Sahong Dam must undergo the ‘prior consultation’ process, instead choosing only to notify neighboring countries of its unilateral decision to build the dam. The Lao government released the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment to neighboring countries and to the public only days before construction was set to begin on the Don Sahong Dam’s coffer dam and work camps.

“Such decisions should not be shrouded in a cloak of secrecy, but rather demand a regional decision that takes into account the opinions of millions of people whose lives depend on the Mekong,” said Pianporn Deetes, International River’s Thailand Campaign Coordinator. “The Mekong is in an extremely precarious situation, in which the full extent of the dams’ impacts have yet to be understood. Transboundary impact assessments have not been carried out for the Don Sahong or Xayaburi dams, and the MRC’s 2011 Council study has yet to begin. Informed decisions are clearly taking a back seat to individual interests.”

Don Sahong Map
Don Sahong Map

Scientific studies, including the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, have shown that the dams would block critical fish migrations and reduce the flow of nutrients that allow for agricultural productivity. Millions of people living along the river would lose livelihoods and fish that provide their main source of protein.

The impacts posed by the Don Sahong Dam bring a new level of risk to the biodiversity of the Mekong River, threatening to block the only channel of the Mekong that currently allows for year round fish migrations on a large scale, while also wiping out one of the last pools of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. There are currently no viable tested measures to mitigate the harms or replace lost food security. Instead, both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam companies propose to study impacts during construction and then attempt to mitigate as they occur.

“The stakes are high and continuing to build Mekong dams through a trial and error approach is reckless and irresponsible,” continued Ms. Trandem. “Scientific experts have warned that the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams have the potential to dramatically alter fish stocks and even wipe out species, leading to serious regional food security concerns. Rather than having blind faith in unproven and untested technology to mitigate the impacts, it’s time to take the precautionary approach that the Mekong deserves. The Mekong is too valuable for risky experiments.”

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