by Ounkeo Souksavanh / Radio Free Asia
Conservation groups have called on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to press Lao President Choummaly Sayasone to postpone the construction of the much-criticized Don Sahong dam project on the Mekong River in Laos.
Choummaly’s scheduled visit to Cambodia Thursday has prompted critics of the Don Sahong dam project to highlight concerns of environmentalists and neighboring countries, who argue that it will block migratory fish routes and destroy endangered ecosystems, harming nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries. Like Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia all border the Mekong.
“I think the Lao government should listen to nongovernmental organizations and try to understand why they are asking for [project] delays or cancellations,” a Lao NGO official who requested anonymity told RFA’s Lao Service. “NGOs are not always antigovernment, but they are helping the government to ensure that communities receive the best benefits from development of the dam.”
The Lao government should not rely on studies provided by the project’s investor, because they are not credible, he said. Instead, it should conduct its own studies or support NGOs to conduct them.
Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) is building the dam on the Mekong River, just two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of Cambodia.
“Different studies from different sources will help the government to make an informed decision,” the Lao NGO official said.
Should the government proceed with the investor’s development plan, it should ensure that the company well compensates those living in communities both upstream and downstream, whose livelihoods will be ruined by the loss of land, he said.
“The government should make sure the investor is responsible for all long-term impacts; otherwise, those affected will go to the government to solve their problems, while the investor takes the money back home,” he said.
Teak Seng, the Greater Mekong director of the environmental group WWF, has said more studies are needed on the project, which would affect a half million people and threaten endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
Chhith Sam Ath, country director of the WWF in Cambodia, told RFA that construction on the Don Sahong would have to be delayed by at least 10 years until all studies had been completed and the preservation of Irrawaddy dolphins and the area’s biodiversity could be assured.
Prior consultation process
In late January, the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission, which conducts prior consultations for the Don Sahong project to evaluate benefits, risks and impact on the environment and people in the Lower Mekong Basin, held a meeting in Vientiane.
But because representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam could not reach an agreement on how to proceed with the project, the decision was deferred to future meetings at the ministerial level.
Laos insisted that the Don Sahong dam’s prior consultation process had been completed, but its neighbors called for an extension of the process until further studies and additional consultations were conducted.
Plans by Laos and its neighbors to dam up rivers critical to local livelihoods have sparked protests in every country, forcing the mostly authoritarian governments of the region to pay attention to environmentalists.
Many controversial dams
Hun Sen on Tuesday repeated a pledge that another controversial dam project—the $400 million Chhay Areng hydropower dam in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province—would not be built on his watch.
“I don’t want to see the younger generation deal with problems from the dam,” he said. “I want to inform you that I am mindful of the difference between economic benefits and environmental impacts.”
The prime minister called for further impact studies of the project and pledged to preserve the Areng Valley in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, where the dam site is located.
Conservation groups and local residents have also objected to the building of another controversial hydroelectric dam project, the Xayaburi Dam, under construction on the Lower Mekong River approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of the town of Xayaburi in northern Laos.
Green groups argue that the dam could threaten the region’s environment and food security.
Construction on the project’s second stage began in January, worrying local Thai fisherman who are concerned that unpredictable manmade tides will further deplete fish populations and diminish their livelihoods, according to an article in the Bangkok Post.
Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’ deputy prime minister of energy and mines, told the Vientiane Times that the river flow would be affected only for a few hours during the initial closure of the dam while workers build a system to let fish move upstream and downstream.