Updated at 12:00 p.m. ET on 2013-11-14
Laos is pushing ahead with construction of a second dam on the Mekong River despite objections from environmental and civil society groups and protest from at least one neighboring country.
Work on the main part of the Don Sahong hydropower dam near the Cambodian border in southern Laos will begin by the end of next year, deputy minister for energy and mines Viraponh Viravong told a group visiting the project site Monday.
Some 100 reporters, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and Cambodian and Vietnamese officials are on a tour of the site this week as Laos seeks to appease opposition to the project.
Construction of the first dam on the mainstream Mekong, the Xayaburi dam, is already underway in the north of Laos.
Environmental and civil society groups have said that the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam, like the Xayaburi project, poses a devastating threat to regional fisheries and food security and will adversely affect some 60 million people in the region.
Activists have said that the dam, which will be built across the Hou Sahong channel in the Siphandone region where the Mekong splits into multiple channels, will block the only section of the Mekong River where fish can pass during the dry season on a large scale.
Others have raised concerns that Laos, which formally notified its neighbors six weeks ago that it planned to start building the dam this month, is moving ahead with the dam without first consulting its neighbors.
Preliminary groundwork around the dam site has gone on for months, carried out by Malaysian developer Mega First Berhad.
Closing off coffer dams
Work that will close off coffer dams on the Hou Sahong channel is expected to start by the end of next year after Laos secures financing for the project and contracts to sell electricity that is to be generated, Viraponh said.
“We hope to ... finalize all the contracts early next year—that is, the power purchase agreement, the concession agreement, and the financing agreement—and then hopefully to sign the turnkey contract in mid-year—May or June—of next year to construct the dam,” Viraponh told visitors at the dam site.
“Then we can start the main work—that means closing the upstream and downstream coffer dams—sometime at the end of 2014 or early 2015.”
Local villagers who will be resettled to make way for the dam will be compensated in accordance with international standards, while those who can no longer fish for a living because of the project will be provided with alternative jobs, he said.
Activists have complained that the project will impact people beyond the immediate vicinity of the dam, calling for further study of the project and consultation with neighboring countries.
The dam has prompted a formal complaint from downstream Cambodia, whose border is 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the dam site.
The complaint was made to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the body that oversees regional cooperation in the Mekong Basin.
“Cambodia has written to Laos to request the project be suspended and that Laos bring the project up for discussion with the Mekong River Commission,” Cambodian National Mekong Committee Deputy Chairman Sin Niny told RFA’s Khmer Service last week.
He did not say why Cambodia was objecting the dam project.
Cambodia-based 3S Rivers Protection Network director Meach Mean said the country’s National Mekong Committee had received no response from Laos to the letter and that Cambodia should insist that the project be postponed until further environmental studies are done.
Cambodian villagers living along the Mekong and its “3S” tributaries want their government to ask national brewer Angkor Beer, in which the owner of Mega First has a majority share, to persuade the Malaysian company to stop or postpone construction of the project, he said.
Cambodia, which is building its own dams on Mekong tributaries, is also, along with Thailand, a potential buyer for electricity generated by the dam, which Laos is building as part of its target to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling electricity to its neighbors.
At least 19 NGOs in the region have written to the prime ministers of the four Mekong River Commission countries—Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam— calling on them to suspend the project until further studies are conducted, according to Cambodia-based NGO Forum director Chit Sam Ath.
Activists say plans for the dam require the removal of thousands of truckloads of riverbed from the channel, which will alter the river’s ecology and aquatic habitats.
In particular, the dam will severely threaten the already endangered Irrawaddy dolphin that lives in the area, they say.
“We are really concerned about the construction, as the dam will affect natural resources, dolphins, and wetlands,” Chit Sam Ath said.
Notification and consultation
Activists have said Laos is avoiding MRC requirements to consult its neighbors before building the dam by claiming it is not on the Mekong mainstream.
On Sept. 30, after months of preliminary groundwork carried out at the dam site, Laos formally informed the MRC of its plans to build the dam beginning in November, using the organization’s “prior notification” procedures instead of the “prior consultation” process required for mainstream dams.
Laos official have said they do not regard the Hou Sahong to be part of the Mekong mainstream and that the MRC’s definitions of a “mainstream” dam are vague.
International advocacy group Save the Mekong Coalition said in a recent statement that it “totally rejected” Laos’s claim.
“There is absolutely no question that the Don Sahong Dam is a mainstream project that will deeply impact flows and fish migration, and have immense transboundary implications,” it said.
International Rivers hit out at the tour Laos had organized to the dam site as an attempt to sell the project to neighboring countries despite the absence of a regional agreement or proven measures to mitigate environmental or social impacts of the project.
“Their latest attempt to greenwash the Don Sahong Dam cannot hide the environmental and political injustices of the project,” the group’s Southeast Asia director Ame Trandem said in a statement.
Reported by RFA’s Lao and Khmer Services. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.