Laos has come under criticism for its decision to forge ahead with a second hydropower dam on the Mekong River without giving adequate time for consultation with its neighbors amid concerns over the project from villagers and environmentalists.
Last week, the landlocked nation notified its downstream neighbors in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which manages development along the key waterway, that it had decided to proceed with the 260-megawatt Dan Sahong dam in the Siphandone area of southern Laos.
The Lao government said construction of the project—a joint venture of Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Bhd and the Lao government—is expected to start in November and finish by February 2018 with commercial operation set to begin in May 2018, according to the MRC. Under MRC rules, consultations should take at least six months before the project gets off the ground.
Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the four members of the MRC—are bound by an agreement to hold intergovernmental consultations before building any dams. Laos had gone ahead with the construction of its first Mekong dam, the 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi, late last year despite objections from its neighbors.
Representatives from 10 of the MRC’s international donors, including the EU, Japan, and the U.S., had asked Laos to submit the Don Sahong project for consultation in June.
The move to build the Don Sahong in the “4,000 Islands” area of the Mekong in Champasak province drew immediate concerns from villagers who said that the project would block the only fish migration channel on the river during the dry season.
“There would be no fish. And with no fish, how will people feed themselves?” one area resident told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Would they [the authorities or project management] provide an alternative for the locals? Will they provide compensation for them so that they can live their lives? It’s an important issue for the people, but they [the authorities] aren’t saying anything.”
The villager said that if the government is determined to proceed with the project, the people would agree with the decision, but would ask for an alternative source of income, “because people can only catch fish and plant the rice [in fields] that they inherited from their parents.”
Hans Guttman, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat, said in a statement last week that Laos had “indicated its willingness to further discuss the project with the other member countries [of the MRC] should there be any concerns or comments.”
“Lao PDR submitted the project as an intrabasin water use on the Hou Sahong channel under the process of notification,” he said. “This will enable the notified member countries to foresee the project’s water use and any impact stemming from this,” he said.
Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) called on the four countries of the Lower Mekong to immediately convene to “fix” the consultation process for approving dams on the Asian waterway in light of Laos’ decision.
“The MRC was effectively broken in November last year when Laos decided unilaterally to proceed with the controversial Xayaburi dam, against the express wishes of Vietnam and Cambodia,” WWF International Director General Jim Leape said in a statement.
“It is impossible to imagine that the Mekong River can be harnessed sustainably without the MRC functioning properly, ensuring joint decisions are reached on dam developments that are to the benefit of all.
He called on the four countries to “immediately revisit the spirit of the original MRC agreement” and “meet urgently to resolve their differences and fix the consultation process before any other dam projects are considered.”
“If the countries fail to get serious about their obligation to cooperate, they risk sabotaging both the MRC and management of one of the world’s great rivers.”
Lao Energy Vice Minister Viraphonh Viravong had told The Nation newspaper in Thailand recently that the Don Sahong Dam is too small to cause any serious environmental impact on the Mekong River.
It would generate electricity only for local consumption in the southern region of the country, he said.
Viraphonh said the run-of-the-river hydro power project, which relies on the natural flow of the waterway, will not cause adverse environmental effects.
WWF said that the Don Sahong, which is the second of 11 dams planned by Laos along its stretch of the Mekong, must be submitted for the minimum six-month consultation process by Laos’ MRC partner nations.
“The Mekong is a shared river, and the four countries are bound by the MRC agreement to hold intergovernmental consultations before proceeding with dam developments that impact their neighbours,” Leape said.
“Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand need to voice their concerns now about Laos’ continued failures to honor the consultation agreement. Without effective transboundary cooperation, the livelihoods and food security of 60 million people are in jeopardy.”
Resource-starved Laos is aiming to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors.
Laos has a total of over 70 dams under construction or in the planning or consideration stages, many of them on waters flowing into the Mekong.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.