Nearly 50 environmental groups have written to the leaders of countries along the Mekong River to urge the revamping of a regional official evaluation process for the controversial Don Sahong dam project in southern Laos, saying the current mechanism is flawed.
Their letter to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand said the concerns of local communities impacted by the project are not being included as required by the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) for hydropower projects in the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The PNPCA requires transboundary impact assessments and discussions among member countries, as outlined in a 1995 agreement that led to the formation of the MRC, which supervises development along Southeast Asia’s artery.
The Sept. 10 letter from 45 groups, including U.S.-based International Rivers, Japan’s Mekong Watch, Thailand’s Northern River Basins Network, and Vietnam Rivers Network, was sent more than two months after Lao authorities decided to open the 260-megawatt Don Sahong project to consultations and scrutiny among MRC members.
The Lao authorities said it would suspend construction of the project, the second dam to be built on the Mekong after the Xayaburi dam, but the developer, Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad, said work was continuing.
The Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams pose a regional security threat for the 60 million-some people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the Mekong for their nutrition and livelihoods, environmental and conservation groups say.
“We are concerned that, as they stand, the PNPCA procedures cannot allow for a legitimate and participatory consultation process for the Don Sahong dam, and the project is set to follow the same destructive path of the Xayaburi dam, bringing further severe impacts to the Mekong and its people,” the letter said.
It said the prior consultation process for the Xayaburi dam, which is under construction, had been a “failure.”
“The limited stakeholder consultation both in number of participants and areas involved excluded many critical voices, including those of local communities in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam,” the letter said.
“The voices of communities must be the priority in the process related to the development of dams on the Mekong River,” it said.
The letter also said many studies indicate that if the Don Sahong dam is built, it will have “severe impacts on Mekong fish and their migration throughout the Lower Mekong River Basin.”
“This threatens the food security and livelihoods of millions of people as well as the economic and political stability of the region, due to increased tension between governments over the failures of regional cooperation,” the letter said.
“As the MRC’s mandate is not for local Mekong communities, there needs to be clarification on how local communities affected by Mekong dams can meaningfully participate in the decision-making process and how their participation will inform decisions made about whether or not a project will proceed,” it said.
“The rights of communities must be recognized.”
United they stand
Following the letter’s issuance, fishermen and villagers from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap and along the Mekong joined representatives from Thailand’s Pak Mun dam area at a conference in Bangkok this week to announce their opposition to dam construction in the Mekong Basin, as well as their support for including locals’ voices in transboundary impact reviews.
Residents of the Pak Mun dam area, situated nearly six kilometers (about 3.5 miles) west of the confluence of the Mun and Mekong rivers, must negotiate every year to have the dam gates opened to allow in fish from further upstream, said Somphong Viengchan, an activist who represents fisherman from the Ubon Ratchathani province in northeastern Thailand.
“If the Don Sahong is built, there won’t be fish to return to the Mun River anymore,” she said, according to a press release issued after the conference.
Fishermen from Cambodia and Thailand threw their support behind Laotians in riparian communities who want their views included in ecological impact reviews of dam projects, including Don Sahong.
A separate statement issued by the fishing community networks said the Lao government must immediately revise the decision to build the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams and allow a cross-border study that would involve all people from Mekong communities.
“We insist that any act to prevent the people in Mekong countries from knowing about the dams or prohibiting them from raising their voices against the projects is a complete violation of human rights and our rights,” said a joint statement issued by the fishermen.
As the Lao government already has made the decision to build the Don Sahong dam, Laotians can’t do anything about it, Viengchan said at the conference.
Laotians risk arrest if they voice opposition to hydropower projects, she said.
“It is impossible for them to come out and exercise their rights,” Viengchan said. “Therefore, after the discussion, we six Thai Mekong riparian provinces have to do something to give voice via the Thai government to the Lao government about the [dam project’s] transboundary impact.”
International Rivers says the Don Sahong dam will block fish migration routes, destroy the Mekong River ecosystem, and cut off the flow of sediments and nutrients.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.