Laos is Ignoring Significant Concerns
of its Neighbours on Mekong Dams
The charade over whether to proceed with Don Sahong Dam, the second Mekong mainstream hydropower project near the Laotian-Cambodian border, will soon reach a defining moment.
On Wednesday, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are expected to bring to a close the Mekong River Commission's six-month prior consultation process for the project. The future of the Mekong hangs precariously on what happens next.
The Don Sahong Dam's prior consultation process required the four countries to conduct due diligence on the dam's impacts on the Mekong River and cooperate in "good faith" to reach agreement over whether to build the project. Despite the opportunities this initiative presents, the consultation process has been widely viewed as little more than a diplomatic charade.
Laos made it clear from the start that the dam would be built and that the process will at best serve to help improve its design. This political maneuvering to exclude neighboring countries from the decision to build the project on a river shared by
more than 60 million people makes it clear that Laos is not acting in "good faith" and is intent on following the same failed process of Xayaburi Dam, in which Laos proceeded unilaterally, ignoring the significant concerns raised by its neighbors and their requests for more study and consultation.
Laos made the decision before necessary baseline and transboundary impact assessments, which are imperative for any decisions on the dam, had been carried out.
The Mekong River Commission - the body assigned to ensure regional cooperation for the Mekong - is going through an existential crisis. Xayaburi Dam served as the first real test for the commission, and it's widely acknowledged that the body lacked the political will to address the unilateral actions taken by the Lao government.
Don Sahong has now repeated this flawed process, ensuring that confidence in the commission to work for the common interest of the Mekong region has reached an all-time low.
The implications of the laissez-faire approach towards the future of the Mekong River are chilling. Scientific studies have overwhelmingly demonstrated that a healthy Mekong is irreplaceable, for the region's rich inland fisheries and the food security it provides.
Food security calamity
Should the cascade of 11 mainstream dams be built, vital migration routes of the world's largest inland fisheries would be blocked, along with sediment flows necessary for replenishing nutrients to the region's farms and paddy fields, forcing the Mekong region perilously close to a food security calamity. Research by Cambodia's Fisheries Administration, WWF and Australian National University has demonstrated that the protein, micronutrients and calories associated with the river's fisheries cannot easily be replaced.
Don Sahong would be built across the Mekong's Hou Sahong Channel, the main waterway supporting year-round fish migration. While Malaysian developer Mega-First Corporation has proposed to re-engineer nearby channels for alternative fish passageways, the actual designs and fish monitoring methods have not been made public nor has exhaustive testing been carried out, rendering the mitigation proposal extremely risky.
With more than 100,000 truckloads of bedrock to be excavated to increase flows into the Hou Sahong Channel, one of the last remaining pools of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin will also likely be wiped out. With the Mekong fisheries and the region's food security at stake, Laos has failed to consider what will happen if the proposed mitigation measures don't work.
With such high risks for the Mekong and its people, its clear proceeding with Don Sahong at this point in time is both reckless and irresponsible. The absence of a strong foundation with which to evaluate the transboundary impacts of the project and reach agreement on whether to proceed with it demonstrates that the prior consultation process must be urgently reformed.
The four countries should seek to extend the process indefinitely as they bring forward their positions on Don Sahong Dam. With the future of the river lying in the hands of riparian governments, its time the four governments act responsibly, end their diplomatic charade and back their rhetoric with action.
Construction towards Don Sahong Dam must be immediately halted and sufficient studies on the project's impacts must be carried out. The burden of proof that the project's impacts will be limited and mitigation measures will succeed must be on the developer. Agreement must then be reached among all four countries - and their people - before proceeding.
The free reign of Mekong mainstream dam building must end now.
Ame Trandem is the Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers, an INGO working to protect rivers and the rights of communities depending upon them.