The 4,000 Island region in southern Laos, named after the large number of islands situated in the waters of the murky Mekong, boasts idyllic, undeveloped villages surrounded by small rice fields and expansive forests. The lack of hustle and bustle is precisely what draws foreign tourists. An estimated 113,684 visited Champasak Province in 2006, according to one report.
The southernmost tip of the islands offer a refuge for the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, numbered at just ten in Laos, as well as some famous waterfalls. Yet this area, just two kilometers from Cambodia, is also home to the Hoo Sahong channel, where the controversial Don Sahong Dam will be built starting November, according to the Laos government. Plans for the 260 megawatt structure have been seen as a way for this developing country to capitalize on its hydrological energy for export. However, environmental experts warn the region could lose not only its dolphins and tourists, but also the massive fish migrations that feed its people.
The Hoo Sahong has been said to be the only viable transit point for large numbers of fish during the lowest part of the dry season, impacting not just Laos but countries downstream, like Cambodia.
Boun Sayavong, a tourism operator on Don Det, a popular tourist island just west of the site, told The Diplomat he is not concerned about losing dolphins or fish. He said the government is preparing for construction by banning the use of wooden fish traps, known as “Ly,” which are placed along the numerous channels between the islands to catch fish as they migrate.
When asked how fishermen will survive without their traps, he said they have other ways to catch fish. “Only those people without jobs are unhappy about the dam.”
“The government asked people by survey and 60 percent said [the dam] is a good idea. Only 40 percent said they didn’t like the idea. It is not like Cambodia where the government decides without asking the people. If Hun Sen says ‘you have to go, we need this land’ then the people have to leave within 24 hours. Not here,” said Boun.
Ian Baird, a leading Mekong fisheries expert who lived in Laos for several years and is fluent in the language, told The Diplomat from the U.S. he was not aware of a government survey. “Nobody would dare say they don’t support the project. I know the villages there well. Of course they can’t say anything as they have been warned – they know their performance well. What he’s doing is telling you what the government wants him to say. He’d doing a perfect PR job. If they say anything else, they will go to jail.”
Ame Trandem of International Rivers NGO agrees. “Most people are careful to say only positive things about the dam in public but once we spend time with them, away from other villagers and once they trust us, they pass their concerns when we tell them won’t use their names.”
Villagers told Trandem preliminary work along the channel began this past summer. A nearby channel has been blasted and villagers’ fish traps have been confiscated to create an alternative migration route for fish.
Mega First Corporation, the Malaysian company slated to build the dam, alleges the fish passes it plans to install with the dam will be sufficient.
Baird, who reviewed the previous Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) said “In the EIA, they only ask fishermen the kilos they caught, not which species. They are comparing fish in this region, which has 200 species, to migrating salmon in North America. I worked in this region for 15 years and published several academic articles. I can tell they don’t have a clue. They are consultants, guessing.”
The Diplomat reached out to Mega First for comment without reply.
Fish migrate up the Mekong from the Tonle Sap Lake in response to hydrological triggers once the dry season begins in November, which also heralds the beginning of fishing season. Both Baird and Trandem warn the insufficient passes would not allow for large-scale migrations and will threaten food security for Laos and Cambodia, which rely on fish for their protein.
Baird said the sharp reduction of wildlife in the region represents a loss of protein and fats that used to be available for consumption and helps explain why both countries have rates as high as 40 percent for child malnutrition.
While people in Laos may hold their tongues, in Cambodia they are speaking out. Around the Sesan, Srepok and Sesong tributaries of the Mekong in remote northeast Cambodia, a civil society group was organized for grassroots push-back in 2001 in response to Vietnam’s dams. When Vietnam dammed the Yali Falls in 1996 upstream of the Sesan River, initially they released excess water from the dam without warning the communities downstream causing numerous deaths. The region suffered greatly and without compensation from violent and irregular floods that wiped out crops and livestock. Residents along the Sesan River told The Diplomat that there are hardly any fish anymore. Meach Mean of the 3SRivers Protection Network, said rivers are the livelihoods of the Khmer, Laotian, Chinese and indigenous tribes living in the watershed. “We need the rivers for farming too,” explained Meach, who is Laos-Tampuan, (an indigenous group). Rivers expand during the wet season, bringing agricultural land to life through irrigation to grow rice, another staple of both Cambodia and Laos.
Trandem, who used to live in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri region herself, said because people didn’t even know about the dam upstream, they thought the spirits of the river were angry with them and sacrificed animals to appease them. Vietnam is now required to notify Cambodia prior to releases but she said sometimes the process takes 14 days, reaching remote villages after they have been flooded.
About 1,000 people in the three rivers region have died, also from problems with water quality. “Toxicity can result from the blue-green algae growing in reservoirs, which is released downstream. It harms fish, animals and people.” Trandom has no doubt that livestock has died from drinking poisoned water. “People rely on the river for everything – fishing, bathing, and farming and to water livestock.”
According to Trandem, Vietnam has now cancelled 400 hydropower projects, which she hopes will be a lesson for Laos and Cambodia. While the impacts from the upper Sesan Dams are striking, the Mekong is even more vital to the region. But the benefits of hydrological dams are tempting.
Ironically, Cambodia buys electricity from the very country that will impact its food security as it does not have an electricity grid, as Baird points out, while Laos has a basic grid. Residents in Stung Treng and northeast Cambodia told The Diplomat their electricity was imported from Laos and sold by private companies ranging from 2000-3500 riel ($0.50-0.75) per kilowatt per hour. Residents in Banlung, Ratanakiri said Cambodia also buys electricity from Vietnam, as the small Ouchum hydrological dam nearby can’t provide enough to meet the city’s needs. According to the World Bank, only 26 percent of Cambodians have access to government-supplied electricity, the rest use private operators, generators or none at all. Electricity does not even reach Ratanakiri’s remote indigenous villages, which get no benefit from the dams, Meach added. “’Rich’ villagers in district centers use generators [starting at $ 700] or solar panels [starting at $400], but most people have no electricity, especially indigenous people.”
Meach said Mega First Corporation also has a connection to Cambodia’s popular Angkor Beer, brewed by Cambrew. Cambrew is jointly owned by the Carlsberg Group. He urges local and foreign consumers to support the Mekong River by boycotting Carlsberg and Angkor beer.
While choosing a different beer might take money away from Mega First, in the meantime electricity-starved northern Cambodia will still need to buy from its upstream neighbors. But it seems the Laotian government’s efforts to get its neighbors onboard the project has backfired. Trandem said a site visit by Cambodian and Vietnamese government officials this past week to Laos left the impression that the environmental impact assessment was not comprehensive. “Since the site visit, Cambodia has sent out a statement demanding dam construction halt and an impact assessment be done.”
Michelle Tolson is a freelance journalist based in Asia.