14 September 2015

Don Sahong Dam - back to the transboundary concerns on the Mekong

Just this weekend I was talking with Dr. Julie Watson about our collective work on the Mekong River, and the idea of a paper was born. Then last night my attention was called to an article that states that Laos is going to go through with a second dam project on the Mekong River. Seems that the timing is right.

Julie and I both included assessments of dam development on the Mekong in our dissertations, she on the Don Sahong and I on the Xayaburi. The Xayaburi Dam controversy I have written about previously several times. Xayaburi is the first mainstem dam in the Lower Mekong. There are at least five dams commissioned upstream in China, but those, for most people who work in the Mekong, are a non-issue. The Laos-Thai Xayaburi created a real buzz with the international community and continues to hold symbolic relevance to irreversible changes in the region. These changes are particularly important to fisheries, water chemistry, sediment load, subsistence communities, to name a few issues.

When I traveled to Laos to conduct research in 2013, I found that through the eyes of locals, the region had changed some years before - right about the time of the Chinese storage dam commissioning coupled with some economic changes in Lao domestic economic policy and the organization known as ASEAN. Though Xayaburi gained international attention, changes in the Mekong, remarkable changes to biodiversity, water flow, and land-use, were already causing some subsistence communities to migrate away from traditional lifestyles. Don Sahong will just continue the trend, now with more potential direct impacts on Cambodia's fisheries.

While Xayaburi broke a precedent of no big dam development on the Mekong River (sort of) Don Sahong is a real problem because it will be located where the last remaining Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins live, reproduce, and play as well as very close to the Cambodian border. When I was in Laos in 2013 you could rent a kayak and go see the animals - a rare experience. Julie talked to people about Sahong working in the region and the implications to people living on the river & people dependent on the fish downstream. (make sure to scroll down on the link - the first page is blank!)

Southeast Asia in general has seen great economic changes in the last two decades and continues to grow in population and economies. The water resources naturally come under threat in such circumstances, especially with all this international push for "green" energy - something that in reality hydropower is not.

NGOs, Cambodia voice alarm at Lao decision to proceed with Don Sahong Dam

Cambodian officials vowed on Friday to prevent neighbor Laos from going ahead with construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam without approval from fellow Mekong River basin countries that would be affected by the project.
The Phnom Penh officials, as well as local and international non-governmental organizations, have expressed alarm at reports that Laos was planning to push ahead with the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam—the second dam proposed for construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream, Southeast Asia’s main waterway.
“Our commission will meet again to discuss our next moves and what stance we should take. We have no choice but to pressure the government to take measures in order to prevent dam construction,” said Pol Ham, chairman of the Cambodian National Assembly Commission on Planning, Investment, Agriculture, Rural Development, Environment, and Water Resources.
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was surprised the Laotian parliament decided to give the green light to the project, which has not been approved by Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body that supervises development along the vital river. The MRC is made up of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
“I was wrong because I thought that international pressures would halt the project,” said Pol Ham, who criticized the Laotian government for disregarding the interests of communities that relying on the rivers waters and fisheries.
Asked about reports that surfaced in regional media in early September that the dam would go ahead, Viraphonh Viravong, Laos Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines told RFA’s Laotian Service “Yes, the concession contract was signed and the National Assembly has already approved it.  This is being implemented according to the legal process.”

“Ill-fated decision”

Conservation groups also have long urged the Lao government to postpone the construction of the Don Sahong dam, arguing that it  will block migratory fish routes, destroy endangered ecosystems, and threaten nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.
“NGOs have expressed concern over the Don Sahong dam construction,” Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network in Cambodia, told RFA. He said that NGOs would continue to advocate against the dam construction.
“The Don Sahong Dam is not a done deal. Until there is regional agreement amongst neighboring countries over the future of the shared Mekong River, the Don Sahong Dam should not proceed,” the environmental group International Rivers said in a statement by Southeast Asia Program Director Ame Trandem issued last week.
“Regional governments have earlier made clear requests to the Government of Laos that further study and time for regional consultation over the project is needed,” said Trandem. 
“Laos should abide by these requests by allowing a moratorium of at least two years, in order to carry out all of the necessary studies. In the meantime, all further contract negotiations, including for the project’s Power Purchase Agreement, should be halted,” she added.
The Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) echoed fellow NGO critics of Laos’ decision.
“The Don Sahong Dam is an ecological time bomb that threatens the food security of millions and a population of critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins. The dam will have negative impacts on the entire Mekong River ecosystem all the way to the Delta in Vietnam,” the WWF said.
“We ask the Laos Government and the developer – Malaysia’s MegaFirst Corporation Berhad – to reconsider this ill-fated decision and wait until further studies on the environmental and social impacts and all legal options and requirements under The Mekong 1995 Agreement have been completed,” added WWF.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement, signed by the four nations, stipulates that in the event that the MRC is unable to resolve a dispute, the issue shall be referred to the governments for “negotiation through their diplomatic channels.”
Copyright © 1998-2014, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. 

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