Controversial Dam Approved on Cambodia-Laos Border

Laos has notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that it will go ahead with the construction of the Don Sahong Dam, which environmentalists say could threaten the ecosystem of the Lower Mainstream Mekong and have a severe impact on the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands Cambodians.

Located less than 1 km from the Cambodian border, the dam will likely lead to the extinction of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in Kratie province as well as the Giant Mekong Catfish, environmentalists say.

“The Lao Government has notified the Mekong River Commission of its decision to proceed with the development of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project in the Siphandone area of southern Laos. The run-of-the-river dam will operate continuously year-round and produce 260 megawatts of electricity,” the MRC, an intergovernmental body responsible for the management of the Mekong Basin, said in a statement Thursday.

The statement says the MRC had been notified on Monday by the Lao government, which also provided a feasibility study for the dam, including the project’s social and environmental impact assessments and fisheries study which will be shared with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, all of which are MRC member countries.

Laos informed the MRC that construction on the dam is expected to start in November and finish by February 2018, meaning it is unclear if the MRC will hold another meeting to discuss the dam before construction begins.

“The energy generated by the project will be fully sold to the national power utility, Electricite du Laos, to supply the increased domestic power demand,” the statement says.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia director of International Rivers, said the snub-nosed dolphin species would be negatively impacted by the dam due to a lack of fish and the extraction of truckloads of sediment from the riverbed.

“The dolphins are extremely sensitive so these changes will…likely lead to their extinction-definitely for the area, possibly for the whole river,” she said.

There are also grave concerns about the effects the dam will have on fisheries, which supply huge num­bers of Cambodians with protein in their diet and a steady income.

The Don Sahong is the second dam Laos is constructing after the $3.8 billion, and also much criticized, Xayaburi. But Ms. Trandem said the Don Sahong would have a larger impact on the fish population in downstream countries, particularly Cambodia due to its proximity to the border.

The company to build the dam is Malaysia’s Mega First Corpor­ation Berhad, which has never built a dam before. Despite the concerns among downstream countries and environmentalists, the Lao government has said the dam will not threaten fisheries as fish will be able to migrate through other channels around the 4,000 island region in southern Laos or use a special fish passage that will be built as part of the 30-meter-high dam.

Still, the University of Sydney said in an open letter from 34 scientists from around the world to the Lao government in 2007 that there was no evidence to prove fish would be able to migrate using alternative routes.

“If a dam is built there and blocks that migration route, fish may not be able to get up the Khone Falls at all, and would not be able to enter Laos from Cam­bodia. This would have serious negative consequences for fisheries production throughout the region,” the letter says.

The scientists said that the dam was not in the best interests of the government of Laos, the Lao people or of any neighboring countries, including Cambodia.

“Based on scientific research carried out by ourselves, other scientists and the Mekong River Commission, we are convinced that this project will have grave environmental impacts, particularly on fish and fisheries but also on tourism and other significant aspects of economy and livelihood, causing damage that will far exceed the net returns from the project,” the letter says.

Ian Baird, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who helped coordinate the letter and has researched the 4,000 island region, said that looking at whether or not the dam could be built on another one of the Mekong’s channel had not been explored by Mega First Corporation Berhad.

“Once the Malaysian company had invested a lot of money in in­vestigating the project and pre­paring engineering designs, they learned during the [Environmental Impact Assessment] that the channel was vital for fish migration, but by then they didn’t want to change their plans, since they had already invested a lot of money,” Mr. Baird said in an email.

Guidelines set by the MRC state that Laos is bound to submit the planned construction of the dam for prior consultation, which would allow regional decision-making with the participation of Cambodia, Ms. Trandem said, adding that so far Laos has failed to do so.

“If the MRC fails to clamp down on Laos, it will be failing its mandate and will lose any validity they have left as an organization,” Ms. Trandem said.

The next meeting of the MRC is due to take place late next month.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that he had not heard of the plan, and officials at the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Environment could not be reached for comment

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