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Laos Split Over Mekong River Dam Construction

  • Luke Hunt

The Laos government has been sharply rebuked by regional governments and environmentalists for ignoring their concerns and pressing ahead with plans to construct yet another dam on the Mekong River. In southern Laos’ Don Det, local communities share many of those concerns, but not everybody is against the dam at nearby Don Sahong.

In the isolated communities of the Four Thousands Islands, which straddle the Mekong River in Southern Laos, talk about the $600 million damming of the Don Sahong channel has stirred interest in an isolated area normally associated with adventure travel.

The government's plan to dam the major waterway within the mainstream of the river and build a 260 MW hydroelectric power station has sparked a flurry of new developments that depend on steady supplies of electricity and upgraded running water. Real estate prices have almost doubled in recent years as speculators position themselves.

Some locals are against the project. Others say the dam would improve their livelihoods and that they had been promised compensation if displaced.

However, as travel writer Anna Fenton noted during a visit here, the biggest obstacle remains a lack of credible information about the dam and the impact it will have on fish stocks and the surrounding environment.

"The main thing seems to be that the locals don't seem to have a clear idea of what the dam means. Some have told me that they think it just covers the Khone Falls which is a relatively confined area, others seem to think it covers the whole area of Four Thousand Islands which is the Mekong at this very wide point and until that's clarified it’s very hard to tell what the dam will mean anyway," said Fenton.

Getting that message across is difficult.

In Laos, there is no tolerance for criticism of the ruling Communist Party. Opponents of the dam say dissent was further suppressed two years ago, when prominent land rights activist Sombath Somphone disappeared without a trace after a videotaped police stop.

A group of Western countries and environmentalists, known as Friends of the Mekong, urged the Laos government to postpone the decision to start construction until further studies are carried out. At a recent meeting in nearby Pakse, the group said a recently completed six month consultation process was inadequate.

Tek Vannara of the NGO Forum in Cambodia said this lack of consultation should be expected from a one-party Communist state. But given the much wider ramifications of the dam, the governments of Cambodia, Vietnam, and civil society groups and Laotians living abroad are united in demanding far more comprehensive studies before it proceeds.

“For the Laos people in terms of the political situations they could not speak to express their concern but for the internationally we also connect with the Laos people who live outside the country and the majority do not agree with the Don Sahong dam,” said Vannara.

Vannara also said the 60 million people who rely directly on the Mekong River and the 300 million people who live on its periphery have every right to be concerned about fish stocks and the potential dislocation of breeding and migration patterns.

Just north of here, the Mekong River divides into several major channels and islands. The channel that separates the islands of Don Sahong from Don Sadam, where the dam is to be built, is perhaps the deepest. And scientists say it provides an exclusive upstream passage for migratory fish during the dry season. Vannara said there are also concerns for the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.

“I think that the mainstream dam will affect the dolphin, especially the dolphin in Stung Treng - Cambodia and Laos border - and also the dolphin in Kratie - because of the water quality during the construction and also in the future, the water fluctuation will have direct effect on the dolphin,” said Vannara.

Independent scientists are also keen on seeing the detail in a plan to deepen a nearby channel to provide an alternative route for migrating fish. Peter Degen, an international technical advisor with the Mekong River Commission, said any decision to proceed with the dam is political and that his job is simply to offer technical support. But, he said, the developer needs to provide more detailed information about the project.

“There are environmental assessments and social impact assessments, yet there are still gaps to be addressed in order to improve the design in case they would like to go ahead,” said Degen.

The government in Vientiane has not responded to the latest push for another delay. But it insists it is free to pursue the development of the Don Sahong dam following completion of the six month consultation process and that it is satisfied with assurances given by the developer, First Corporation Berhad Malaysia.

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