A battle is raging over the swirling currents, the rock pools, and rapids beneath the spectacular waterfalls of Si Phan Don [The 4000 Islands] – a unique wetlands area in southern Laos, where a Malaysian company seeks to build a controversial hydro-electric dam.
The rich biodiversity of the Mekong includes around 100 migratory fish species passing through these islands, part of a chain of food security supporting 60 million people in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam
A small colony of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins frolics in pools along the Lao- Cambodia border. A much-loved eco-tourist destination, its pristine beauty cries out for international protection under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Malaysian company Mega-First and the Lao government plan to open the dam in 2015, across the all-important Sahong channel. The channel is the only route for fish migration from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, and Vietnam.
Geography Professor Carl Grundy-Warr at the National University of Singapore told The Diplomat: “If this special wetlands zone is protected, it could be one of the great wonders of the world, but now it is far from being a secure sanctuary. If the Don Sahong Dam goes ahead ecological degradation will soon follow.”
Instead of protecting the wealth and wonder of this eco-paradise, the Lao government prefers to launch a dam, build a casino, and set up new special economic zone.
The battle shaping up in the new year is between two very different visions of the future of Si Phan Don: conservation and expanding ecotourism on the one hand, or the noisy invasion of engineering teams and heavy equipment building the dam, scarring the landscape, and triggering conflict with riparian neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam.
With the support of NGOs, Cambodian Mekong communities have staged several anti-Don Sahong Dam demonstrations during 2014. Thai NGOs have condemned the project. Scientists from around the world have signed a petition.
The inter-government Mekong River Commission (MRC) has a six-month prior consultation process for mainstream Mekong dams. The result has been separate national forums in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam
Mega First, the Malaysian dam developer, and its plans came under vigorous scrutiny at the regional consultation held in Pakse Laos on December 12.
The Lao government delegation seated inside the Champasak Grand Hotel in Pakse looked on with impassive silence and disdain as the Vietnam Rivers Network (a Vietnamese NGO network) formally called for the dam to be cancelled.
With so much water diverted to fuel the Don Sahong Dam, Mekong experts raised the prospect that the magnificent Khone Phapheng waterfalls, a national treasure and the widest waterfall in Southeast Asia, could be undermined, and even lose its iconic status.
Nguyen Hong Phuong, deputy director of Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee, expressed grave concern. “We understand that in the dry season, 50 percent of the Mekong flow will be diverted to the Don Sahong, so that’s very important. We have to maintain 800 cubic meters per second from the Khone Falls. How can we do that? We don’t have the convincing evidence from the developer.”
Chhith Sam Ath, program director of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Cambodia warns: “The Don Sahong Dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis. The project is next to our border. Have they forgotten that fish are our lifeline and the backbone of our economy? Fish are central to our diet and our main source of protein.”
Where the Mekong reaches The 4000 Islands, it divides into the seven main braided channels, with the Hou Sahong by far the deepest and the widest. The Lao-Malaysian decision to locate a dam across the Sahong will block the only viable channel for large-scale fish migration on this stretch of the Mekong, according to U.K. fisheries specialist Terry Warren.
But Mega First insists that it can engineer a solution that will somehow guide and divert the fish like vehicular traffic to other routes or channels. Company representatives at the dam-site have repeatedly claimed an “engineering solution” for “closing the down Sahong channel” and diverting fish to Hou Xang Phuek and Hou Saddam – two much smaller channels.
However, Dr. So Nam, a Cambodian from the MRC fisheries unit, reported that the Mega-First engineering scheme – excavating, widening and deepening these two purported alternatives to fish migration through the Sahong – is a non-starter. He explained that MRC experts had concluded “Hou Saddam and the Hou Xang Phuek channels cannot compensate for fish losses from Sahong, and there will also be an impact on the Khone Falls, “
Even the main fisheries expert employed by the dam company, Ken Hortle conceded, “We don’t have all the data we need about these fisheries, and nobody knows the impact of the dam on fisheries in Cambodia.” This would appear to confirm the strongly voiced complaints of the Cambodian Mekong delegation that no trans-boundary studies had been done.
Dr. Philip Hirsch, director of Sydney University’s Mekong Research Centre, told The Diplomat: “In such an environmentally sensitive area you don’t just go ahead with a project. It is a highly risky project so you need to take a precautionary approach, and make sure you have got it right before you take a decision to build a dam.”
However, MRC CEO Hans Guttmann has said that, “Prior consultation is not a process to seek approval for a proposed project.” While the 1995 Mekong Agreement is clear that consultation process does not permit “a right to veto,” there is an important caveat that “no country has the unilateral right to use water by any riparian without taking into account other riparian’s rights.”
According to Hirsch, “It is very odd that Mr. Guttmann’s statements only focus on mitigation” and ignore the precautionary principle.
The wider issue of whether there is any possibility that the developer will satisfy MRC’s own recommended guidelines of a 95 percent success-rate of fish surviving the dam turbines and other obstacles is also strangely excluded from the CEO’s concept of the consultation.
Adds fisheries specialist Terry Warren: “Why take such a huge risk for a dam that delivers so little energy (260 MW)? “
In the view of the Vietnam Mekong committee, the developer’s plans spell doom for the Mekong. Deputy director of the VNMC Nguyen Hong Phuong was blunt at a press conference in Hanoi. She said that far from 95 percent success, “few fish could survive the dam.”
According to Dr. Ian Baird, a Mekong fisheries specialist at the University Of Wisconsin Madison, “The dam would cause serious nutritional problems throughout the Mekong Region. Decreasing availability of fish in the marketplace would lead to higher prices, reducing fish consumption, especially by poorer consumers.”
Official MRC principles and meetings are sprinkled with platitudes about the spirit of international cooperation and friendship between the four member states. But behind the smiles, tensions and conflicts simmer. Old Mekong friendships between Laos and its former Indochina allies Cambodia and Vietnam have become decidedly strained as Vientiane’s rulers gravitate ever closer to China’s orbit and a mutual appetite for endless dams.
China also shares the Mekong River and has constructed five dams on the upper Mekong [the Lancang], but is not a member of the MRC. Now Beijing is moving towards contracts with the Lao government on the Lower Mekong, with deeper international implications.
Cambodia has angrily complained about unilateral and uncooperative behavior from the Lao side and the developers. In April 2014, Vietnamese Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Minh Quang urged Laos to stop the Mekong dam projects, until “the environmental assessments of hydropower plants on the mainstream of the river jointly conducted by the three countries, are completed in December 2015.”
But construction on the Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos continues unabated (with the dam now 30 percent complete). Meanwhile, the blasting of rocks in preparation for building the Don Sahong Dam has proceeded without heeding these downstream concerns. The Lao PDR government insists that the Don Sahong Dam will go ahead irrespective of the conclusions of the ongoing MRC regional consultation process. With that, the aspiration that the MRC would ensure good governance of Southeast Asia’s most important river has slipped away on a combination of lethargy and toothlessness.
Fisheries expert Terry Warren, who was a member of the 2007 EIA team studying the Don Sahong project, has spoken out about the risk of going ahead. “If these fish can complete this migration, it means Cambodian fisheries will continue to flourish. Stop a migration and within a few years everything will start to collapse and eventually cease to exist. I see disaster looming for the fisheries of Cambodia and southern Laos, if this project goes ahead.”
In Vietnam, experts say the dams upriver will destroy the delta’s rice paddies and aquaculture. Wetlands specialist Nguyen Huu Thien predicts that if the dams go ahead his country would cease to be the world’s second-largest rice exporter in 20-30 years. He argues that Vietnam cannot afford to allow more dams to go ahead and risk losing the delta to the double whammy of climate change and hydro dams.
The fate of Southeast Asia’s greatest river might well be decided in 2015. Will the Don Sahong project ensure a slow death for a free-flowing Mekong? Or will Vietnam and Cambodia manage to rally sufficient international pressure to call a halt to this reckless hydropower rush?
Tom Fawthrop is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.