The leader of Laos’ ruling party claims there will be no negative ramifications resulting from the construction of the controversial $600m Don Sahong hydropower dam on the Mekong River. “Laos will make an effort to ensure that there will be no impact [in neighbouring countries],” said Bounnhang Vorachith, secretary-general of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, on Saturday. Bounnhang added that his country had studied the environmental impacts at length.
According to Senglong Youk, deputy executive director at Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) and coordinator at Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper, Lao authorities have long been making such spurious claims. “In order to get the project done, they have to tell the public that there will be no impact,” he said.
The construction site of the Don Sahong dam lies in the Siphandone (Khone waterfalls) area, just two kilometres upstream of Laos’ border with Cambodia. According to campaign group International Rivers, the 260-megawatt dam “would block the main channel passable year-round by fish migrating between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, threatening vital subsistence and commercial fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin”.
Chhith Sam Ath, country director of WWF Cambodia, said that numerous scientific reports have documented that the Don Sahong dam “will have extremely damaging impacts on fish migrations, which will destroy the food security and livelihoods for millions of people downstream”. Added to this, the construction will likely signal the demise of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, “including four in the pool less than two kilometres from the construction site and more than 70 further downstream”.
“We believe that the way to ensure there will be no impacts to the Mekong and its biodiversity is to study the transboundary impacts of the dam,” said Sam Ath. “If the Lao government is really making an effort to ensure that there will be no impact, they have to stop construction immediately until a study is done.”
As for halting the dam’s construction, Youk from FACT feels that options are limited. “It’s very hard to put pressure on the Lao government,” he said. “We do not have any clear mechanism for water management in the Lower Mekong.” There is the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, signed by the Thai, Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese governments, but it is not a strong system for countries to effectively lobby one another, Youk added.
According to International Rivers, the project is being developed by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation with consulting services provided by Australia’s SMEC New Zealand and the US’s AECOM. China’s Sinohydro International Corporation has been contracted to construct the dam.
The Don Sahong dam is just one of 350 hydropower projects in Laos to be constructed with private-sector backing, with the aim of adding more than 26,000 megawatts of new capacity to the regional grid. Laos hopes to sell much of this electricity to its neighbours. The biggest of these projects currently underway is the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam, also widely criticised for its expected environmental impacts.
WWF’s Sam Ath believes there are alternatives to these projects and, in the case of the Don Sahong dam, there is a clear one. “They should research alternatives such as the Thako Water Diversion Project,” he said. “That can generate almost the same amount of power with dramatically less damage to fisheries, dolphins and ecosystems.”