Mekong Council Set to Discuss Laos’s Don Sahong Dam

laos-siphandone-fisherman-nov-2013.jpg A fisherman catches fish on a channel west of the Khone Phapheng falls near the future Don Sahong dam site on the Mekong River, Nov. 10, 2013.

Ministers from four countries that share the Mekong River are set to discuss this month whether Laos should be required to consult its neighbors before moving ahead with a second controversial dam on the regional waterway, officials said Friday.

Laos’s planned Don Sahong dam will be on the agenda when the top council of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—the intergovernmental body responsible for coordinating use of water resources by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—meets in Thailand on June 26-27, MRC officials said.

Laos’s neighbors have raised concerns about the transboundary impact of the 260-megawatt project, which is to be built just north of the Cambodian border.

They insist it should be put through a formal consultation and technical assessment, while Laos has maintained it should go through MRC procedures that require Vientiane only to provide neighbors information about the project.

Following disagreement over the procedures at a lower-level MRC meeting in January, the water and environment ministers of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam who make up the MRC Council will take up the issue at this month’s meeting, an MRC communications officer told RFA.

“At the end of the MRC Joint Committee meeting in January, the four [countries] could not come to any agreement on whether this project should be part of the MRC’s Prior Consultation Process,” the officer said.

“The MRC Council will take a look at this.”

Controversial project

The dam is to be built on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel about one mile (2 kilometers) north of the Cambodian border in the Siphandone area where the Mekong splits into multiple braided channels.

If it goes forward it will be the second major dam on the Lower Mekong, following the Xayaburi dam that Laos has begun building over objections neighboring countries raised last year.

This month’s MRC Council meeting will not touch on the Xayburi project, according to an official from Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

The topic of what MRC procedures Laos should follow for the Don Sahong was added to the agenda on the proposal of Vietnam, he said.

“We won’t talk about the Xayaburi dam anymore; we will talk about the Don Sahong. We will select this issue for the chairman to include in the agenda,” he told RFA.

Proper procedures

Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand have raised concerns that damming the Hou Sahong will have a greater impact than Laos has acknowledged, particularly on fish migration routes.  

Laos says the project is not mainstream dam and will use only 15 percent of Mekong flows.

Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, told Bloomberg News that compromises were possible during the MRC Council meeting.

“They could come to some understanding that they should do a limited investigation and joint work on how the impacts can be mitigated and how they would work with impacts on fisheries,” he said.

“There’s still an opportunity for coming to an agreement.”

Global green group International Rivers has called the Don Sahong a “ticking time bomb” for Mekong fish.

The project poses a regional security threat for the some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the river for their nutrition and their livelihoods, the group says.

Under MRC rules, member countries are required to engage in “notification” procedures for year-round intrabasin water-use projects and interbasin diversion projects on the Mekong’s tributaries, and for wet-season water use on the mainstream.

“Prior consultation” procedures—the ones Laos’s neighbors are calling for—apply to proposed water use projects on the mainstream in the dry season, diversion of water from the mainstream to other basins during the wet season, and diversion of surplus water to other basins in the dry season.  

A third set of rules known as “specific agreement” procedures are required for projects diverting water from the mainstream to other basins in the dry season.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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