Work on new dam threatens havoc for Mekong environment

opinion June 27, 2013 00:00

By Ame Trandem,
Pianporn Deetes

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Work on the second Mekong mainstream dam, the Don Sahong Dam, is progressing rapidly.

The project is located in the Khone Falls area of southern Laos, less than two kilometres upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border. A site visit by International Rivers last week confirmed that work on the dam’s access roads and bridge is scheduled to begin next year. Numerous activities are underway at the project site even though the government of Laos has not yet initiated the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) prior consultation process, as required under the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
Villagers reported to us that construction on the Don Sahong Dam’s bridge and access roads will begin in 2014. It’s clear that the Don Sahong Dam is following the same trajectory that the Xayaburi Dam took, in which secrecy and illicit project implementation topples regional cooperation. Sadly, what is happening at Khone Falls is emblematic of the failure of the MRC to address the problems related to the Xayaburi Dam.
International Rivers’ observed that over the past two weeks, the dam’s developer, Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation, hired local people to place markers all over the Don Sadam Island indicating which land would temporarily and permanently be taken for the construction of the dam’s bridge and access roads. 
On June 14, the Vientiane Times reported that the developer had sought the aid of local authorities and residents to clear blocked channels and remove fish traps in attempts to improve fish passage on nearby channels. Three channels are known to have been cleared thus far of rocks, river vegetation and fishing equipment. No compensation or livelihood restoration has been provided to the fishermen who can no longer use their lays and other fish traps, which have provided a significant source of income for local households for generations.
As a project affecting the Mekong mainstream, the Don Sahong Dam is expected to undergo the MRC’s regional decision-making process, in which the governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam must seek agreement to build the project. The first case to undergo this process was the Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos. While the Don Sahong has yet to initiate this process, there is significant concern that construction activities and backdoor bilateral deals on the Don Sahong will proceed outside of the MRC process, as was the case of the Xayaburi Dam.  
International law and the Mekong Agreement prohibit one government from implementing a project while the other governments are still evaluating the proposal, which is part of the obligation of the countries to negotiate “in good faith”. With the Xayaburi Dam, the developers began work at the dam site, signed the power purchase agreement with Thailand, and signed financing agreements with Thai banks while discussions at the MRC were still underway.
The Xayaburi Dam has set a dangerous precedent that undermines future regional cooperation and illustrates the need for urgent reform of the MRC’s prior consultation process before additional projects proceed. 
While the Don Sahong Dam’s 2012 environmental impact assessment report has yet to be released to the public in accordance with Lao laws, experts have long warned of the project’s expected transboundary environmental and social impacts. 
The Don Sahong Dam would be an environmental calamity. The project is aimed at increasing Mega First Corporation’s profits while exacerbating the already known and very serious impacts of the dam on regional fisheries and biodiversity. If built, the Don Sahong Dam will inevitably and irreversibly block the only channel in the Khone Falls through which fish can migrate upstream and downstream during the dry season, leading to predictably serious effects on fish catches, species and the livelihoods of millions of people in the region.
The Don Sahong Dam is expected to construct a barrier between two islands on the Mekong mainstream on the Hou Sahong Channel, which is the only channel in the Khone Falls area that allows for year-round fish migration. The dam threatens the migration, feeding and breeding patterns of a diverse number of fish species – including major migrations between Laos and Cambodia – which would seriously affect most of the major fisheries of southern Laos. Additionally, one of the few remaining habitats of the already endangered Irrawaddy dolphins will also come under increased threat. It’s still unclear whether the Don Sahong Dam has been officially approved by the Lao government.
“The Mekong River’s fisheries do not stop at each country’s political boundaries. Projects affecting the river need to be decided on a regional basis,” said Kumpin Aksorn from the Thai community-based organisation Hug Namkhong, who joined the site visit. “The Don Sahong and other mainstream dams are foolhardy and dangerous, as they threaten to fundamentally change the nature of the river and its resources, which serves as the lifeblood for millions of people in the region. Before cross-border tensions grow, full public disclosure of the project’s environmental impact assessment is urgently required, as well as meaningful consultations with affected communities and neighboring countries.
The Mekong River Commission’s Annual Informal Donor Meeting is scheduled for June 27 and 28 in Phnom Penh, where development partners review the MRC’s past work. The development partners, including Australia, Finland, Japan, Sweden and the United States, among others, are expected to make a public statement.