Don Sahong Charm Offensive Fails to Sway Skeptics

CHAMPASAK PROVINCE, Laos – For three days this week, the Lao government and the Malaysian company behind the 240-MW Don Sahong dam project pulled out all the stops to sell the project to a group of skeptical officials from neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam.

The visitors were treated to lavish meals at a five-star hotel in Pakse, replete with shark-fin soup and roasted duck. Monday night’s agenda featured a dinner with free-flowing Beerlao and whiskey for guests, who were entertained by women performing traditional Lao dances.

A ferryboat crosses the Hou Phapheng river, a channel of the Mekong River in Laos, near to where the Don Sahong hydropower dam is slated to be built despite protests from Cambodia that the project could seriously affect fisheries. (Nontarat Phaicharoen)
A ferryboat crosses the Hou Phapheng river, a channel of the Mekong River in Laos, near to where the Don Sahong hydropower dam is slated to be built despite protests from Cambodia that the project could seriously affect fisheries. (Nontarat Phaicharoen)

On a daylong tour of the Mekong River islands near the proposed dam site, local villagers and schoolchildren in crisp uniforms were lined up along the country roads to smile and sampeah at the passing delegates.

It was a slick exercise in winning hearts and minds.

But despite the five-star treatment of those who attended the “study tour”—which included environmentalists and aid donors from the U.S. and Switzerland as well as Cambodian and Vietnamese government officials, and several journalists—few were convinced by the company’s pitch.

“I can see that there is vast room for further improvement and work and information and surveys ahead,” Le Duc Trung, director-general of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, said at the end of the three-day tour.

Mr. Duc Trung said he was still “disappointed” with some of the arguments put forth by Laos and the Malaysian company, Mega First Corporation, that the dam would do no harm to the Mekong.

Spanning the Hou Sahong water channel in the Mekong, the Don Sahong dam has received a barrage of criticism since the Lao government announced the start of the project in early October.

Environmentalists say the dam will cut off one of the most crucial fish migratory routes in the Lower Mekong water basin, harming the food security of millions of people in the region—many of whom reside in Cambodia and further downriver in Vietnam.

Contracted to build the dam for the Lao government, Mega First officials said they don’t believe the environmentalists.

At a presentation at the Champasak Grand Hotel in Pakse on Sunday, Mega First officials were on hand to, in their own words, “debunk myths” about the dam perpetuated by the environmentalists.

But, if the concerns prove true and fisheries are harmed, who will take responsibility?

That was the question Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, asked Mega First’s senior environmental manager Peter Hawkins.

“If the measures [to protect fisheries] do not work, then what will happen?” Mr. Navuth asked. “We cannot be assured it will work.”

Mr. Hawkins replied that he was confident the environmentalists’ “myth” would not become a reality. But, if it did come to pass, he said, it would be a problem for the Lao government to solve.

“Now we are very confident that we can [mitigate fishery impacts] but…if it does come to pass that the myth becomes a reality, then the Lao government will have to make the decision,” he said.

While the Lao government claims that the Don Sahong will only be a “tributary dam,” Cambodia believes it lies on the mainstream Mekong, Mr. Navuth said later in the day.

According to procedures laid out in the 1995 Mekong Agreement—a non-binding document governing all development on the mainstream Mekong River that was signed by Mekong River Commission (MRC) members Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand—any hydropower projects on the river’s mainstream must be submitted to a lengthy consultation process between member countries.

Known as the prior consultation process, in theory it means that all MRC-member governments must agree before any country can move forward with construction on the river’s mainstream. Dams on Mekong tributaries only need to go through a much less rigorous “notification process.”

“Laos put this Don Sahong project just for notification, whereas the project’s location is on the mainstream of the Mekong, even if it is [only] on one channel out of the seven major channels,” Mr. Navuth said.

“It is on the mainstream, not on the tributary,” he said, adding that it was “premature” to start talking about construction of the dam before all countries had agreed.

“[Their environmental impact assessment] says nothing about how it affects Cambodia, which is very close” to the dam, Mr. Navuth added, explaining that the proposed dam is just 1.5 km from the Cambodian border in Stung Treng province.

“So we want the report [to] be extended just to include Cambodia, to understand the trans-boundary impacts,” Mr. Navuth said.

Despite the lavish surroundings, free flowing Beerlao, and the dispelling of “myths” by Mega First’s staff, the visiting delegates found it particularly hard to accept the Lao government’s claim that the dam would, in fact, improve fisheries in the region.

That counterintuitive argument was made by Viraphonh Viravong, deputy minister of the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines.

During a visit to a tiny islet of pebbles on the Hou Sadam River, Mr. Viravong explained that local villagers were already complaining of decreasing fish catches every year in this part of the Mekong River, even in the absence of a dam.

“We haven’t built any dams here, we haven’t blocked any river, yet the fish population is already going down,” he said.

The dam, he added, would improve that situation as “alternative fish passages” proposed by Mega First would provide other routes for migratory fish.

The Vietnamese government delegation, which raised a number of specific criticisms over the dam’s effects on fish, questioned Mr. Viravong’s logic.

“With little understanding of fish behavior, with unclear physical conditions [of the river channels], how do you ensure that fish migration [impacts] can be mitigated?” asked Nguyen Van Bang, a fisheries expert from the Vietnamese National Mekong Committee.

Mr. Viravong assured his guests that Laos would, if nothing else, be the first country to feel the negative effects of the dam, should there be any.

“If it’s going to hurt the Cambodian people, it will hurt Laos people first. So we make sure it doesn’t hurt our people,” Mr. Viravong said, adding: “If anything happens, it’s so easy: You just blast the dam and it becomes another natural waterfall.”

Members of the delegation could often be seen arguing with Mega First’s experts on some of the techniques they plan to employ, such as the use of “fish-friendly” turbines in the hydropower dam—which rotate more slowly than standard turbines—and the replication of nearby river channels to mimic the Hou Sahong.

While the MRC had initially announced that the dam construction would commence this month, Mr. Viravong said that construction would likely not begin until late 2014.

“It will be more than a year before we start touching the Mekong River,” he said, emphasizing that Laos welcomed input from its neighbors.

That view was apparently not shared by Mega First, which has already invested $10 million in the dam project.

“We would be happiest if we could start construction yesterday,” said Yeong Chee Neng, Mega First’s Don Sahong dam project manager.

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