Cambodia has seen no ill effects from a dam built 2 km from its border with Laos, Prime Minister Hun Sen asserted this week as he thanked the Laotian government for its offer to sell cheap electricity to border provinces.
“Regarding the Don Sahong hydropower area—Cambodia has checked the situation there,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a Wednesday meeting with Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at Apsara palace in Siem Reap, a video of which was posted to his Facebook page.
“There is no issue with the project, and there is no impact in terms of lack of water or fish migrations,” he said.
To Cambodian civil society groups and villagers living below the construction site on the Mekong River, many of whom have protested the project since consultation on it began in 2013, the words were a bitter reminder of the Cambodian government’s development priorities.
Mr. Hun Sen said the dam “doesn’t have an impact because Laos agreed to sell cheap electricity to Cambodia,” said Thaim Oudom, a freelance consultant for Earthlight International and other NGOs, who works below the Don Sahong dam site.
It was easy for the prime minister to say the dam has no impact on fisheries or the river because the Cambodian government has put no money into studying these effects, Mr. Oudom said on Thursday.
“There’s no documentation of the effects yet,” he said. “There’s been no commitment to do so from Laos or Cambodia.”
Since the Laotian government first notified the Mekong River Commission of its intention to approve Malaysian developer Megafirst’s plan to build a hydropower dam at Don Sahong, civil society groups have lobbied for more thorough studies into how the dam could affect the lives of those who depend on the river for survival.
In particular, two NGOs—International Rivers and the World Wildlife Fund—have called for an assessment in both countries, noting that the existing research has been confined to an area upstream of the dam.
Construction on Don Sahong began late last year, and a study on how it might affect the lives of the Cambodians below the dam has never materialized.
NGOs including WWF are collecting data on the Mekong’s fisheries, according to Mr. Oudom and Socheat So, a WWF fisheries expert, but no solid information regarding the dam’s impact is yet available.
For those who live below the dam, now 70 percent built, the question of whether it is affecting their food and water brings uncertainty.
Villagers have reported mass fish deaths and foul water, but it is impossible for most to say if the deaths and chemicals are from drought, the dam or residue from dynamite fishing in the waters.
“Communities have reported to me—women and children—that they feel that something is wrong in the water,” said Mr. Oudom. “Their skin gets irritated. They get rashes.”
“We’ve started seeing dead fish,” he added. “But it’s unclear if it’s from the dam construction or from illegal fishing.”
Meanwhile, overfishing and the inscrutable effects of dams far upstream on the Mekong have already stretched the communities who live near the border’s flooded forests to their limit.
Sun Rot, the chief of O’Svay commune in northern Stung Treng province’s Thala Barivat district, noted at a protest against Don Sahong last year that fish in the river had been decreasing since 2007.
“In the past, in a day of fishing, we’d get 10 to 20 kilograms. Now we get 5 kilograms,” he said.
Neang Lekkhina, a resident of his village, remarked on Thursday that what was certain was that O’Svay’s impoverished fishermen—those living on the Mekong’s islands who have been forced by hunger into dynamite fishing—wouldn’t benefit from the deal Cambodia cut with Laos.
‘“Electricity?” she asked. “There’s no electricity on the islands.”