Mekong River Countries Face ‘Make or Break Moment’ Over Lao Dams

Infrastructure work for the Don Sahong Dam in Laos is underway with the construction of a bridge to connect the mainland to Don Sadam island.
Photo courtesy of International Rivers

Mekong River countries face a “make or break moment” next week when they meet under a regional mechanism to discuss a defiant move by Laos to build a second dam along the major Southeast Asian artery, a global environmental group said Wednesday.

The Don Sahong hydropower dam project will be discussed at the June 26-27 ministerial-level meeting in Bangkok of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an inter-governmental agency made up of representatives from the four Lower Mekong nations Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The project will be the second dam on the Lower Mekong mainstream, following the controversial Xayaburi dam that Laos has begun constructing despite opposition from neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said in a report ahead of the MRC talks that the regional agency must “prevent unilateral interests from shattering regional cooperation and joint management of one of the world’s great rivers.”

It said time was running out to halt the two controversial dams that could do “irreversible damage” to food security and critically endangered river dolphins.

“The MRC joint decision-making process was effectively broken in 2012 when Laos decided unilaterally to proceed with Xayaburi dam, against the express wishes of Vietnam and Cambodia,” said Marc Goichot, WWF-Greater Mekong’s sustainable hydropower expert.

“The meeting in Bangkok is the make or break moment for the Mekong River. It’s not too late to suspend Xayaburi dam construction before irreversible harm occurs early next year.”

Laos announced its decision in September last year to proceed with the Don Sahong dam, bypassing the MRC’s consultation process.

“Mekong countries must urgently get the MRC back on track and resolve ambiguities over the consultation process,” Goichot said.

‘Perilous state of cooperation’

The MRC’s Joint Committee failed in January to reach agreement on whether or not the Don Sahong dam is required to undergo regional decision-making, and elevated the decision to the ministerial meeting.

“The impasse over Don Sahong dam shows the perilous state of cooperation in the Lower Mekong,” Goichot said.

“The Mekong is a shared river and the four countries are bound by the MRC agreement to reach decisions jointly on dams that impact their neighbors.”

Without effective regional cooperation, WWF said, food security for more than 60 million people would be “in jeopardy.”

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.

To date, close to 150,000 people have signed WWF’s petition calling on the Malaysian dam builder, Mega First, to pull out of the project.

Infrastructure work in full swing

Construction of the Don Sahong dam is scheduled to begin later this year, but infrastructure work has been going on for some time.

A site visit early this month by another global green group, International Rivers, confirmed that workers have begun construction of a bridge connecting the mainland to Don Sadam Island, the group said in a report Wednesday.

The bridge will create an access route for construction on the Hou Sahong Channel, it said.

Villagers around Don Sahong were informed in November 2013 that they would be resettled to make way for the dam, but do not yet know when they will be moved, creating a feeling of uncertainty regarding the future, International Rivers said.

While fishing has been banned on the Hou Xang Pheuak channel flanking the Hou Sahong channel to allow for Mega First to work on creating a fish passage, no compensation or livelihood restoration has been provided for families who can no longer depend on the significant source of income derived from the river, according to International Rivers.

"Continued construction towards the Don Sahong Dam is an unwelcome déjà vu for Mekong communities and governments as Laos continues to move forward unilaterally with decisions which threaten the entire region,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers.

“The risks go well-beyond the borders of Laos—the Don Sahong Dam will irreversibly impact livelihoods and food security throughout the Mekong.

“There are at least 65 million people in the four countries using the Mekong River,” Deetes told RFA’s Lao Service. “Now we are trying to let people and society widely know that the Mekong is at risk and we want them to understand and express their voices to decision makers to understand that this is a huge issue in the region.”

The WWF urged Mekong ministers to defer a decision on Lower Mekong main stem dams for 10 years to ensure critical data can be gathered and a decision can be reached using sound science and analysis.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.


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