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Damning the Mekong?

The Khone Falls on the Mekong river in southern Laos, close to the Cambodian border, is “an ecologically unique area, so rare in nature that every effort should be made to preserve all of Khone Falls from any development”, according to a Mekong River Commission consultant in a 1994 report.

A colony of Irrawaddy dolphins draws many visitors and helps to sustain a growing ecotourism in Siphandone, the Four Thousand Islands region, based around the Khone Falls, Asia’s largest waterfall. This important area is under imminent threat from the construction of a hydroelectric project, the 240 megawatt Don Sahong dam, only a few kilometers away.

The government of Laos notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on September 30 of its plans to start construction of the dam in 2014. It will be the second Lao dam on the Mekong, after Xayaburi, farther upstream.

The decision is facing opposition across the Mekong region. A coalition of 103 Thai mon-governmental organizations drawing much of its support from eight Thai provinces bordering the Mekong, have demanded that the Thai government take action to stop the dam.

Chhith Sam Ath, executive director at Cambodian NGO Forum commented: “The Don Sahong dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis. The project is next to Cambodia’s border. Have they forgotten that fish are our lifeline and the backbone of our economy? Fish are central to our diet and our main source of protein.”

Scientists are warning of grave consequences for food security in the region if fish migration is blocked by a dam across the Sahong channel.

Khone_Phapheng_Falls_-_1

Khone Falls, Mekong River.

The Hou Sahong channel is the route used by 80-90% of migratory fish coming upstream from Cambodia that need to negotiate the Pha Pheng (Khone) Falls and rapids in the dry season.

It could be considered the most perverse of choices to locate a dam right there, blocking the only viable channel for large scale fish migration.

UK fisheries expert Terry Warren, a consultant on the first Don Sahong dam environmental impact assessment in 2007 explained: “If these fish can complete this migration, it means Cambodian fisheries will continue to flourish. Stop a migration and within a few years everything will start to collapse and eventually cease to exist. I see disaster looming for the fisheries of Cambodia and southern Laos if this project goes ahead.”

The dam-builder, Megafirst has dismissed these scientific concerns as unfounded. The Malaysian company’s senior environmental manager, Peter Hawkins, claimed in the Vientiane Times that “environmental impacts can be mitigated by using other natural channels adjacent to the Hou Sahong.”

Fisheries experts seriously doubt the possibility of using any other channel, and point out that fish ladder and fish-pass technology widely practiced in cold climates of North America, Norway and Switzerland cannot be simply transplanted to a totally different fish ecology and environment in tropical climes.

Eric Baran, a fisheries expert working with the World Fish Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has stated that fish mitigation remains “untested” on the Mekong.

Jeremy Bird the former CEO of the MRC, has strongly asserted that in considering dams on the Mekong “the fisheries is the number one issue that has to be solved, and the onus for demonstrating that this can be solved rests with the owner of the project.” (2011)

The Don Sahong dam is bound to re-ignite bitter divisions within the MRC over the unilateral damming of the Lower Mekong. Cambodia and Vietnam insist on independent scientific studies of trans-boundary impacts before any dam goes ahead and do not accept the fish mitigation claims coming from Megafirst.

What makes relations even worse between Laos and their riparian neighbors is the shock caused by the Lao government’s bid to reject the accepted definition of the Don Sahong dam as a mainstream dam on the Mekong, which would otherwise require at least six months consultation prior to any decision to go ahead with a hydropower project.

In its September 30 notification to the MRC, Laos gave an interpretation that the Sahong channel did not qualify as a mainstream dam because somehow it had changed from being a “main stream” into a “tributary” during the course of 2013.

In this way, the dam company and the government would escape serious scrutiny by the affected downstream countries and public fora where opposition voices could be heard would not take place.

This is shaping up to be a major test-case for the Mekong River Commission to live up its mandate to promote sustainable development and at the same time garner peaceful international cooperation in the management of water resources. This depends on the Mekong’s survival as a healthy river rich in biodiversity, with a wealth of inland fisheries supporting 60 million people.

The Xayaburi dam now under construction further upstream in Laos was subject to a six-month prior consultation process organized by the MRC as required under the 1995 Mekong Treaty.

The Don Sahong dam announcement has prompted a strong response from Cambodia’s Sin Niny, the Cambodian deputy chairman of their National Mekong Committee.

The Lao government’s construction plans must be suspended, he wrote to the Lao authorities, and neighboring countries – Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam – must be given the opportunity to review the environmental impacts.

Laos has surprised almost everyone with its unilateral assessment that has reclassified Don Sahong as a dam that is not “mainstream”.

The MRC secretariat and its technical experts since a 2007 study have always referred to this project as “mainstream”. Hans Guttman, the chief executive of the MRC, told Asia Times Online that “the Don Sahong is a mainstream dam in the view of the MRC Secretariat as the dam is located on the main stream and since its inflow comes not from a tributary, but rather through the main stream.”

Guttman now says his secretariat has “no authority” over the MRC Council – on which sit the environment and water ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – and appears to be bending over not to upset the Lao government. He stressed that “the MRC is not a regulatory body.”

There is growing concern over the MRC Secretariat’s passive response to apparent violations of the 1995 Mekong Treaty, which Cambodia has previously highlighted over the Xayaburi dam, and now again with the second dam.

Phil Hirsch, director of the Mekong Resource Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told Asia Times Online: “It is disingenuous for the MRC leadership to say now that it has no authority to describe the dam as mainstream. By doing so, the MRC is failing in its obligations to facilitate good governance of the Mekong using all the publicly funded science at its disposal.”

Ten major international donors to the MRC, including Japan, the United States and the European Union, have also requested the Lao government to submit the dam to prior consultation. This would appear to give Guttman the kind of mandate he needs to persuade the Lao government to accept the need for a detailed riparian review.

The scientists are saying that the Mekong, with its wide biodiversity comprising almost 1,000 fish species, is being put at risk for a small dam with installed capacity that could not even maintain three shopping malls in Bangkok.

Fisheries expert Terry Warren questions that given the such small benefits in energy creation and the huge “potential of the dam to ruin an extremely important SE Asian fishery and the livelihoods of thousands, why risk it?”

Tom Fawthrop is the director of a TV documentary on damming the Mekong Where Have All The Fish Gone (Eureka Films 2013) and can be contacted as EurekaFilmsdocos@gmail.com. He has covered the Mekong region since 1979 for media published in Australia, Hong Kong and the UK. 

This article originally appeared in Asia Times online.

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