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Documentary Looks at Impact of Mekong Dams

The Xayaburi dam, which would produce hydropower for market, has become a divisive issue among Mekong River countries.
PHNOM PENH - An updated documentary, “Where Have All the Fish Gone?,” examines the impacts of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River.

In particular, the film shows construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam, in Laos. The film screened recently at the Australian Center or Education in Phnom Penh.

The Xayaburi dam, which would produce hydropower for market, has become a divisive issue among Mekong River countries. Critics say it could severely damage ecosystems on which lower countries like Cambodia and Vietnam rely. It is one of 11 dams under consideration on the lower Mekong.

Kunthea Phirum, a graduating student in the capital who viewed the film recently, said he had thought such a dam would help improve the economy of Laos, but now he’s not so sure.

“After seeing so many negative impacts of the dam, and other available options for generating energy for Laos, I don’t think the dam is the best choice for that country,” he said.

A previous version of the film screened in Phnom Penh two years ago. It was shot on locations in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, depicting a number of projects under way and voicing concerns of environmental activists and experts who warn of unpredicted consequences from the dams.

Journalist Tom Fawtrop, who directed the film, said the Xayaburi dam is not likely worth the costs.

“Whatever benefits Laos may gain in selling the electricity are probably outweighed by the enormous destruction this will be to the Mekong River and its ecosystem and jeopardizing food security of all the nations of the Mekong,” he said.

Some 60 million people live along the Mekong River, relying on it for food and agriculture. The use of the river is supposed to be supervised by the Mekong River Commission, which has representatives from regional governments.

Gordon Congdon, freshwater conservation manager for the World Wildlife Fund, said the film raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the commission. Many of the impacts of the Xayaburi dam have not been carefully considered, he said.

“At this point, it’s premature—and frankly I think it’s irresponsible—to proceed with the construction of the dam before these important questions are answered,” he said.

Cambodia and Vietnam has both called for further impact studies before the dam is built. But media have reported the ongoing construction of the dam, with the permission of Laos.

Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, said this kind of behavior is ultimately bad for people living downstream.

“If each country thinks only of its own benefits, then in the end the people are the ones who pay the costs,” he said. “We share the same river.”