Laos has suspended construction of its controversial Don Sahong hydropower dam on the Mekong River following environmental and other concerns expressed by neighboring nations, according to the country’s new envoy to Cambodia, but the dam’s Malaysian developer says the project is forging ahead.
Lao ambassador Prasith Sayasith announced the suspension during a meeting with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong on Tuesday, China’s Xinhua news agency reported, citing Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Kuong.
It is believed to be the first time a Lao official has announced a freeze on construction of the dam since a regional meeting in Thailand in June when it agreed to allow greater scrutiny on the project, following criticism from neighbors and environmentalists.
“Following past meetings in Thailand, Laos has decided to suspend the construction of Don Sahong hydropower dam,” Koy Kuong quoted the ambassador as saying to Hor Namhong.
The Don Sahong is the second controversial dam project being implemented by Laos on Southeast Asia’s key Mekong River.
Hor Namhong, who is also Cambodia’s foreign minister, welcomed the suspension and referred to the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which says that any proposed mainstream dam in the lower Mekong Basin must be extensively discussed by all four lower Mekong countries before proceeding.
The three lower Mekong nations besides Laos consist of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—all of which have formally called for a halt in the construction of the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam to allow for further impact studies.
However, Malaysian dam developers Mega First Corporation Berhad said Wednesday that construction on the Don Sahong was going ahead as planned, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
“I am at the project site and I can advise you that construction has not been suspended” except for a “temporary” halt due to flooding, Don Sahong environmental manager Peter Hawkins told the Post.
Preparatory work on the Don Sahong began more than a year ago and full-scale construction is to proceed in December, according to the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines.
In June, Lao Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong announced to a meeting in Thailand of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which supervises development along Southeast Asia's artery, that the project would be submitted to prior consultation among the lower Basin nations.
In the same breath, though, he told the other MRC nations that work on the project would continue.
"With your support and constructive input, the Lao government will continue to develop the project in a responsible and sustainable manner,” he said.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted MRC communications adviser Surasak Galahan as saying at the time that “as a courtesy, Lao PDR [said it] would not carry out construction during the prior consultation process,” though when that consultative period begins and construction would stop was unclear.
Previously, Laos has refused to comply with a requirement under the MRC that it should submit the Don Sahong project for scrutiny among member nations.
It had only agreed to notify members of the progress of the dam.
Environmental groups say assessment of the project under the prior consultation process would require a transboundary impact assessment and debate among member countries.
Regional security threat
The Don Sahong project poses a regional security threat for some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the river for their nutrition and their livelihoods, global green group International Rivers says.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has called on the MRC to “prevent unilateral interests from shattering regional cooperation and joint management of one of the world’s great rivers.”
It said time is running out to halt the Don Sahong and the Xayaburi dam—the first dam that Laos has begun building over the objections of neighboring countries—which could do “irreversible damage” to food security and critically endangered river dolphins.
The Don Sahong dam will be built at the downstream end of the Hou Sahong channel, which runs about five kilometers (about three miles) between the major islands of Don Sahong and Don Sadam.
The dam threatens the Mekong’s critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and will block the only channel available for dry-season fish migration, putting the world’s largest inland fishery at risk, WWF said.