Formal construction on the much-criticized Don Sahong Dam in Laos will begin early next year, according to a Lao energy official, despite a host of concerns raised during an open consultation period with stakeholders.
The controversial dam is being built by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) on Southeast Asia’s key artery the Mekong River, just two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of Cambodia.
The project has sparked widespread concern among neighboring countries and environmentalists who say that it will block migratory fish routes, negatively affecting nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.
Daovieng Phonekeo, deputy director general of the Lao Department of Electricity, told RFA’s Lao Service that full-scale construction of the 260-megawatt dam would begin shortly after the end of a six-month consultation process which began in July.
“On Jan. 21, the consultation process will be completed, and after that we will begin construction during this dry season [which runs from January to May], because during the rainy season we can’t carry out the work,” he said.
“If we can’t start construction this dry season, we will have to wait until the next dry season. But we have already planned [to begin this year].”
Lao authorities decided in June to open the Don Sahong project to consultations and scrutiny among members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body which supervises development along the Mekong River, and to the regional public.
The Lao government also said it would suspend construction of the project—the second dam it is building on the Mekong after the Xayaburi Dam—though Mega First has said work is continuing on secondary infrastructure, including roads and bridges.
But according to global environmental group International Rivers, the official July 25 start date for the consultation process was only decided upon by MRC members at the beginning of October when the process was nearly halfway over.
And concerns raised by a number of participants during a public consultation meeting consisting of civil society, nongovernmental and governmental organizations, and regional and international organizations earlier this month in Pakse appear to have been disregarded by Laos, including calls to scrap the project altogether.
Regional governments are expected to meet in January to put forward their positions on the project.
MRC CEO Hans Guttman has said that “prior consultation is not a process to seek approval for a proposed project” such as the Don Sahong.
But watchdogs have pointed out that under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which led to the MRC’s formation, the consultation process is “neither a right to veto the use nor unilateral right to use water by any riparian without taking into account’s other riparian’s rights.”
In a statement read at the public consultation meeting this month, the NGO Save The Mekong said it was critical that decisions related to development on the Mekong mainstream “are based on agreement between all four MRC member countries, and most importantly, by the millions of people in the region who depend upon the river, its biodiversity and its resources.”
“We call on the Lao government to immediately cancel the Don Sahong Dam, and for the Cambodian, Thai and Vietnamese governments to take necessary actions to uphold their own responsibilities towards the protection of the Mekong River and its people,” the statement said.
Daovieng Phonekeo told RFA that Lao officials “explained everything regarding the Don Sahong” to participants at the Dec. 11-12 meeting, including its expected environmental impact, and said the government believes “the project will not affect downstream countries” Cambodia and Vietnam.
He said he was disappointed that Cambodia and Vietnam—both of which stand to disproportionately bear socioeconomic costs from the project, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Stimson Center—had not expressed support for the dam, but that it would proceed regardless.
Chaiyuth Sukhsri, a member of the Thai National Mekong Committee, questioned whether Laos would take any of the recommendations from the consultation process into consideration before beginning construction on the dam.
“I worry that the Lao government won’t have time to study the new information obtained before the end of the six-month prior consultation process, and that it won’t have time to change the plans for the dam accordingly before proceeding with construction,” he said.
“It will end up the same as Xayaburi dam, which did not consider enough information on impact before the decision to erect it was already made.”
He said that while planning for the Don Sahong had done a acceptable job of studying factors such as fish breeding and the seasonal flow of the Mekong, the Lao government should delay construction on the dam to investigate the new information from the consultation process to “avoid possible future impacts.”
Reported by Manichanh Phimphachanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.