Cambodian villagers are worried that the few remaining Irrawaddy dolphins in a pool in the Mekong River could die off as they are forced to migrate upstream into Laos to escape disturbances caused by the construction of a massive hydropower dam project, local residents and activists said Thursday.
Only three endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, also known as Mekong River dolphins, are now left in the Cheuteal transboundary pool between southern Laos and northern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, whereas eight were in the area in 2010.
Members of the Preah Rumkel ecotourism community in the province’s Thalaborivat district said Irrawaddy dolphins have been moving two miles upstream into Laotian waters because of noise from explosions at the construction of the 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam along the Mekong River in southern Laos, less than a mile from the Cambodian border.
The small Mekong River village of Preah Rumkel was set up in 2007 with assistance from an environmental NGO as a community-based ecotourism site to support the local community and improve residents’ livelihoods. Community members manage the tourism site themselves. The half-completed dam lies about one kilometer (0.6 mile) away from the community.
Besides the noise from the dam construction site, the chemicals discarded into the river by construction workers have also forced the dolphins upstream, said Phay Vanna, a member of the Preah Rumkel ecotourism community.
He said he wants the Cambodian government to hold Laos, which is building the dam, accountable.
“I would like the prime minister and civil society organizations to send some experts to conduct additional feasibility studies to hold Laos accountable for the impact caused by the dam’s construction,” he said. “I am a community member. I have witnessed the real impact.”
Gone for good?
Residents are also concerned that their incomes will fall as fewer tourists visit the area when the dolphins are gone for good.
Once in Laotian waters, the Irrawaddy dolphins may succumb to gill nets—vertical panels of nets lined up across a river to catch fish—whose use is not prohibited in Laotian waters as it is in Cambodian ones.
Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says use of the nets is one of the main reasons for the decline in the population of Irrawaddy dolphins, which become entangled in the nets and drown.
The organization wants gill nets banned from a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) radius around the Cheuteal Pool, where they are currently in use, and increased enforcement against fisherman who violate the ban.
Huoth Seng, a Preah Rumkel villager, said he is not happy with recent remarks by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen regarding his approval of the Don Sahong Dam.
On Nov 23, during a meeting in Siem Reap with leaders from Laos and Vietnam about development in the Golden Triangle area, Hun Sen said feasibility studies had been conducted and that the dam project would have no impact in terms of lack of water or fish migrations.
But the dam construction is affecting several thousand families who rely on selling souvenirs, accessories, and food to tourists who come to see the dolphins, he said.
“I didn’t see any transnational studies or research on the impact of the dam project,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “What I have seen is that the project is implemented. Now that the communities have been impacted, I wonder who will be held accountable.”
‘We don’t agree with him’
Civil society groups also accuse the prime minister of turning a blind eye to other issues related to the dam's construction that are affecting thousands of people in the area.
Ek Chamroeun, coordinator of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), a group of NGOs that advocate for fisheries issues and monitor policy reforms, said the dam project has also been a disaster for food security.
“Though Hun Sen said there is no impact, we don’t agree with him,” he said. “We are concerned because we see the real impact on the communities regarding the dam project.”
According to WWF, the Irrawaddy dolphin population has dropped by 50 percent this year in Cambodia, and the large aquatic mammals are functionally extinct in Laos with too few potential breeding pairs available to ensure the population’s survival.
About 80 Irrawaddy dolphins remain in the Mekong River in Cambodia.
Reported by Sothy Men for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.