Lao Dam Could Devastate Fish Stocks in Cambodia, Report Says

Experts, scientists call on Lao government to reconsider plans

A report on the potential impact of a dam planned on the Mekong River in Laos, close to Cambodia, warns that the hydropower project could have devastating effects on fish stocks and consequently affect food security of people in the Mekong River Basin.

The Don Sahong dam, expected to generate between 240 me­ga­watts and 360 megawatts of power, is located less than one kilometer from the Cambodian border. It could lead to a loss in fisheries and “negatively impact the nutritional status of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people dependent on fisheries” upstream and downstream from the dam, according to the report by researcher Ian Baird and the NGO International Rivers, which was released yesterday.

A letter signed by 44 international scientists, fisheries and nutritional experts supported the report’s findings and called on the Lao government to reconsider its plans for the hydropower project, as it could have “grave consequences” and set back efforts to alleviate poverty and stymie achievement of the UN Millen­nium Development goals in Cambodia and Laos.

Rivers International also said the Don Sahong project had been expected to receive final approval earlier this year, but was delayed due to a lack of customers for its power. The Lao government has already agreed on the dam project studies and environmental impact assessment, but those studies did not include the project’s impacts outside Laos.

Plans for the dam call for construction on an important fish migration route through the Khone Falls, the Hou Sahong Channel, and would block at least 32 fish species known to move there from the Tonle Sap River, the report said, adding these fish species include Trey Rie—a small fish that makes up 21 percent of Cambodia’s inland catch and is used to make the much-loved fish paste prahoc. The report added that in Cambodia, fisheries in Stung Treng province and on the Sesan River would be most severely impacted by the 32-meter high dam in Laos.

Existing technology is unlikely to effectively mitigate the impact on migrating fish, the report continued, as it cannot handle the scale and diversity of fish migration in the Mekong River, which according to the World Fish Cen­ter can reach up to 3 million fish per hour in some parts of the river.

The report warned that the dam could seriously impact the nutrition of poor families in Cambodia and elsewhere downstream as reduced fish catch could drive up food prices for Cambodians, who eat on average 32.3 kg of inland fish and 4.5 kg of other aquatic animals per person annually.

Sam Nov, deputy director of the Fisheries Department, said he could not comment on how severely the Don Sahong Dam could impact Cambodia’s fisheries. “Each country has the right to study their potential power production,” Mr Nov said, before adding, “Lao should clearly study the impact of the dam and make the impact small.”

Phauk Sam En, Stung Treng province’s deputy governor, said he was worried about the effects of the planned dam on fisheries and the environment. He added, however, that, “the Mekong River Commission should discuss this project with the Lao government.”

Tek Vannara, communication officer of the Culture and En­vironment Preservation Asso­ciation, which has a Stung Treng office, said changes in fish stock, water flow and water quality could affect Stung Treng’s population, 45 percent of whom live off fishing.

“If possible, the government should review the EIA. It should [also] put mechanisms in place to help people [cope with the dam’s impact] if it goes ahead,” Mr Vannara said, adding that public consultation on the project in Laos was another prerequisite that was lacking.

Tonn Kunthel, project officer for the NGO Forum’s Mekong Communication Rights program, said: “We urge the government to ask the Lao government for information about this project,” adding that so far no project documentation had been made available by the Lao government.

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