Film Examines Possible Threat Posed by Mekong River Dams

Thirty-minute documentary investigates impact on fishing communities

“Where Have All the Fish Gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam,” a documentary film by British journalist, and long-time Cambodia-hand, Tom Fawthrop, examines the impact that the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Laos could have on the fishing communities that live along the Mekong and the river’s diverse ecosystem.

The 30-minute documentary—which was completed last year and received funding from Oxfam Australia—screened Thursday night at Phnom Penh’s German cultural center Meta House, drawing mixed reactions from audience members about development versus conservation. For Mr. Fawthrop, there is no question of the destruction the Xayaburi in Laos—and the 11 other dams mapped out downstream in Laos and Cambodia—would reek on local people whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong River—the world’s largest freshwater fishery.

“What happens on the river Mekong could be more important than any election, because 90 percent of the population is dependent on fisheries,” Mr. Fawthrop said in his introduction to the film at Meta House. “Watch the film and you will come to the conclusion that dams and fisheries don’t mix,” he said.

While Laos wants to sell most of the electricity from the dam to Thailand, the two other affected countries, Cambodia and Viet­nam, are concerned that the dam will deplete fish stocks and threaten the livelihoods of the millions of people who live along the Mekong.

Through interviews with grass-roots activists, scientists, and government officials in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, the film explores the threat the proposed Xayaburi dam poses to the food security of a population that depends almost entirely on fish for nutrition, as well as the effect it would have on rare aqua­tic species.

Among the Cambodians interviewed in the film, environmentalists raised issues of how dams planned for Stung Treng pro­vince and Sambor on Cam­bodia’s section of the river would be the final blow to the already endangered Ir­rawaddy dolphin, which has a declining population of less than 100.

So Nam, director of the In-

land Fisheries Research and

Develop­ment Institute of the Cambodian Fisheries Admin­istration, pointed to the fact that 81.2 percent of Cambodian’s protein intake comes from fish—meaning that the diet of the majority of the population would be threatened by dwindling fish populations should the dams go ahead and wreak the havoc warned of by environmental groups.

Chith Sam Ath, from local rights group NGO Forum,

asks who will ultimately benefit from the dam construction, demanding: “Development for who?”

This question is one of the film’s underlying threads be­cause, says Mr. Fawthrop, “Our documentary is not addressed to keeping businessmen happy, it’s addressed at raising what the real development issues are in this region.”

This led one of the audience members at Thursday’s screening to ask the filmmaker whether the film was not too one-sided, with most of the people interviewed clear opponents of the Xayaburi and other proposed dams.

“Government technocrats talk about the positives of dams. We are providing an alternative,” Mr. Fawthrop answered.

Mr. Fawthrop elaborated on this in an interview, saying that his documentary did have interviews with people who held positions contrary to the film’s overriding thrust that the dams could turn the Mekong into a devastated ecosystem.

“The documentary is not necessarily against dams, it’s against large hydropower dams…which tend to be the most destructive,” Mr. Fawthrop added.

Plans are underway to translate the documentary, which has been shown in Vietnam, Thai­land, Laos, and at Phnom Penh’s Pannasastra University, into Khmer and Thai.

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