WWF Says Urgent Meeting Needed Over New Laos Dam

International environmental group WWF has called on the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to convene an emergency meeting in order to discuss the possible environmental impact of the Don Sahong dam in Laos, on which work is expected to begin as early as next month.

Jim Leape, WWF’s international director-general, said in a statement that the MRC—an intergovernmental body made up of officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thai­land and Vietnam—would be rendered useless if the Don Sahong dam were to move ahead without any prior discussion.

“The MRC was effectively broken in November last year when Laos decided unilaterally to proceed with the controversial Xaya­buri dam, against the ex­press wishes of Vietnam and Cambo­dia,” Mr. Leape said, referring to the 1,285 MW Xayaburi, which broke ground in November de­spite strenuous objections from Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The four Lower Mekong countries must immediately revisit the spirit of the original MRC agreement and meet urgently to resolve their differences and fix the consultation process before any other dam projects are considered,” he added.

Mr. Leape also called on Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to pub­licly voice their concerns about Laos’ “continued failures to hon­or the consultation agreement.”

“Without effective transboundary cooperation, the livelihoods and food security of 60 million people are in jeopardy,” he said.

Last week, Laos notified the MRC—which is responsible for the management of the Lower Mekong basin—that work on the Don Sahong dam was imminent and plans were in store for it to be completed by February 2018.

Critics have cited Laos’ construction of the Xayaburi dam as a violation of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which states that all mainstream development can only proceed if it has the consensus of the four countries.

However, there is disagreement between the countries on how the agreement should be interpreted.

During the last MRC meeting in January, Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong said the MRC’s consultation process only lasts six months and does not require consensus.

Sin Niny, the permanent vice chairman of the Cambodia Na­tional Mekong Committee, disagreed in the meeting and voiced his opinion that all countries must reach an agreement before un­dertaking any project on the mainstream Mekong.

Expected to generate about 240 MW of electricity, the Don Sahong dam is located in an area known as the Khone Falls, where islands and water channels are braided together on the Mekong mainstream. Less than 1 km from the Cambodian border, the dam could lead to the extinction of the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the Giant Mekong Catfish, as well as block the migratory passages of the river’s robust fisheries, environmentalists say.

Watt Botkosal, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said Sunday he is aware that Laos has informed the MRC of the country’s plans to go ahead with the dam, but is unclear on how Cam­bodia would react to the news.

Because of the dam’s proximity to Cambodia, it should have been brought to the neighboring countries’ attention sooner, Mr. Botkosal said.

“In my point of view, it’s very close to the Cambodian border. The Don Sahong is a mainstream dam so the negative impacts need to be discussed among the other countries,” he said, adding that the government will discuss a response.

The company awarded the contract 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 Khone Falls region in southern Laos.

(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy)

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