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Controversial dam in Laos 'will impact millions'

WWF report says plans for Mekong dam are highly flawed

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

Published: March 04, 2014 04:03 AM GMT

Updated: March 03, 2014 05:36 PM GMT

Controversial dam in Laos 'will impact millions'

People fish in the Mekong River below Khone Falls close to the Laos-Cambodian border (photo © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Greater Mekong)

As Laos continues to push ahead with its controversial Don Sahong Dam, environmental campaigners warned on Tuesday that plans for lessening the impact on those living downstream of the Mekong dam were highly flawed and could lead to the extinction of species and the suffering of millions.

In a scathing 14-page review released on Tuesday, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) called the research commissioned last year by dam builder Mega First Corporation Berhad “at best sloppy and incomplete.”

Central to the Don Sahong plan is a pair of fish channels that Laos maintains will allow unimpeded migration of all fish species, making minimal, if any, impact on downstream fisheries and those who rely on them for food and income.

The WWF report calls such plans “faith-based” and insufficiently researched, arguing that there is little scientific evidence that the passages, as envisioned, will succeed. 

“Overall, if in the likely event the passage systems proposed for the Don Sahong Dam fail, permanent harm to some Mekong River fish populations and the millions of livelihoods they support will likely occur.”

In an email, Viraphonh Viravong, Vice Minister at the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines defended the study, pointing out that those who worked on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are “experts and scientists with extensive experience in the Lower Mekong Basin.”

“We insist that studies be done professionally and thoroughly by recognized international experts and that the resulting analysis and technical data be disseminated wholly and honestly with other qualified experts for discussion,” he said, adding that environmental studies as well as discussion with neighboring countries remained ongoing.

Published in January 2013, the EIA carried out by a team of more than a dozen international and Lao researchers, has served as Laos’ best line of defense in moving ahead with the dam.

The second of 11 dams planned on the Mekong’s mainstream, the Don Sahong has long drawn criticism from scientists, environmentalists and rights groups who warn of catastrophic downstream impacts.

This, in turn, has raised alarm in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, which have called for more research into the effects downriver, even as Laos appears to be forging ahead without the approval of its Mekong River neighbors.

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Te Navuth, chairman of the government’s Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said that among the chief flaws he had found in the EIA was an almost complete lack of investigation into the dam’s effects outside Laos’ borders.

“The EIA study did not extend well to downstream Cambodia, [it did not look at] whether there would be any impact. We asked Laos to consider expanding the study,” said Navuth, adding that he had received no response to the request. 

The dam is located less than two kms from the Cambodian border, and the country is expected to be especially hard hit should the mitigation efforts fail.

According to Navuth, those proposals appeared tenuous at best.

“The mitigation measures proposed for the Don Sahong, improving the two other channels nearby, could not be well understood in terms of fish migration replacement,” said Navuth.

Navuth said the Cambodian government would again raise these issues during an inter-governmental meeting with Mekong nations to be held in Vientiane later this week, but he was holding out little hope for a turnabout.

The Lao government and the developer have repeatedly maintained that the impacts will be limited and the criticism unwarranted.

"Despite the clamour from anti-development interests, the Lao Government believes the Don Sahong project can actually improve the migration and abundance of fish in the region and enhance the economic and social well being of the people," said Viravong.

In the EIA, meanwhile, a matrix of potential impacts promises “significant social benefits to local people, including on Cambodia side,” and argues that the mitigation plan “could actually improve the current situation.”

Like the government and environmentalists, Cambodia’s fishermen are skeptical.

Forty-eight-year-old Kung Chanthy lives on the Mekong, just a few kms downstream from the planned dam site. A fisherman and the father of six, Chanthy has little faith in the Lao mitigation plan and is terrified about what will happen to his family once construction begins.

“The fish cannot migrate through the Don Sahong area when the dam is built. They cannot migrate from Cambodia to Laos or from Laos to Cambodia. It will affect the livelihoods of people along the Mekong River, especially the fishermen,” he said.

“I will be hopeless when the dam is built.” 

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