A group of Cambodians on Thursday staged a protest on boats calling on neighboring Laos to halt the construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam on the Mekong River, saying the project would destroy fisheries central to the food security of millions of people and harm endangered dolphins.
Comprising about 100 community leaders, representatives of nongovernmental organization (NGO), youths, and monks, they traveled along the Mekong River displaying banners calling on Malaysian engineering and construction firm Mega First to heed public opposition to the project and stop work on it.
They said the 260-megawatt hydroelectric dam in southern Laos, just one kilometer (0.62 mile) upstream from Cambodia, will detrimentally affect the livelihoods of Cambodian villagers in provinces such as Stung Treng and Kratie.
Rivers and waterways of the two provinces are also famous for the critically endangered dolphins.
Around 85 dolphins are now restricted to a 190 kilometer (118 mile) stretch of the Mekong River between southern Laos and north-east Cambodia, with the Don Sahong dam project located just upstream of the mammals' core habitat, according to environmental group World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), which organized the protest.
“Don Sahong dam is a dangerous experiment and Mega First is gambling with the livelihoods of millions,” said Chhith Sam Ath, WWF’s Cambodia director.
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that WWF tried but failed to discuss the issue with Mega First.
Chhith Sam Ath noted that hydropower generated from the dam cannot compensate the losses to be suffered by the fishing communities and the environment.
More than 250,000 people, including about 12,000 Cambodians, have signed an online petition by WWF opposing the dam’s construction, according to the environmental group.
WWF said millions of tonnes of rock are to be excavated for the dam project using explosives, creating strong sound waves that could potentially kill dolphins which have highly sensitive hearing structures.
Increased boat traffic, changes in water quality, and habitat degradation represent other risks, it said.
The dam will also block the only channel available for dry-season fish migration, putting at risk the world's most productive inland fisheries and the livelihoods of 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin, WWF said.
The Lao authorities announced last month they had suspended construction of the Don Sahong dam following environmental and other concerns expressed by neighboring nations but Mega First said the project was forging ahead.
Bo Taingtorng, a villager from Stung Treng province in northwest Cambodia, called on Mega First to “please consider the millions of people who rely on nature” in the area in order to survive.
In June, Laos said it would hold intergovernmental consultations on the dam and conduct and share studies on its environmental and social impact before proceeding with construction.
Cambodia as well as other Lao neighbors Thailand and Vietnam have formally called for a halt in the construction of the Don Sahong dam to allow for further impact studies.
Chhay Areng dam
The Don Sahong project isn’t the only contentious hydropower dam project.
It is the second dam project on the Lower Mekong mainstream after the controversial Xayaburi dam that Laos decided on its own in 2012 to start building despite opposition from Cambodia and Vietnam.
Environmental activists and villagers alike have opposed and protested the building of the dam, which will sit on the Lower Mekong River east of the town of Xayaburi in northern Laos.
Meanwhile, Cambodian monks and environmental activists plan to hold a hunger strike on Saturday outside the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh to back their call for Beijing to suspend plans to build a 108-megawatt dam in Koh Kong province in southwest Cambodia.
Hundreds of families will be affected by the construction of the Chhay Areng dam project by China’s Sinohydro Corp., the world’s largest hydropower construction company, activists said.
Ly Chan Neng, an activist monk, told RFA that villagers are concerned that the project will destroy a wildlife sanctuary and the harmony of the communities that live there.
“I’m opposed to the dam’s construction because it would affect our natural resources and negatively affect at least 600 indigenous families,” he said.
A Chinese embassy official who refused to give her name said she wasn’t aware of the planned hunger strike and declined to give any further comments.
Cambodia has enlisted a private-public consultancy to study the social and environmental impacts of the proposed hydropower dam, The Cambodian Daily reported in June.
Villagers and activist monks said the dam would flood parts of Areng Valley and destroy the cultural identity of the Chong minority group living there.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.