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Documentary Tackles Concerns Over Mekong Dams

Produced by journalist Tom Fawthrop, the film, “The Great Gamble on the Mekong: Are we Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam?” looks closely at the impact of the controversial dam. (Photo courtesy: Tom Fawthrop)
Produced by journalist Tom Fawthrop, the film, “The Great Gamble on the Mekong: Are we Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam?” looks closely at the impact of the controversial dam. (Photo courtesy: Tom Fawthrop)

Editor’s note: A new documentary film about Don Sahong dam project in Laos recently premiered in Phnom Penh. Produced by journalist Tom Fawthrop, the film, “The Great Gamble on the Mekong: Are we Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam?” looks closely at the impact of the controversial dam, plans for which are moving forward despite widespread opposition and the fear it will permanently damage fish ecology for the entire region.

Why did you make this film?

The intention of making this film is to go beneath the surface of the claims of governments, particularly the Lao government, and the hydropower lobby, who constantly tell us how we need more energy; the region wants more electricity to be generated; that hydropower is a clean form of energy. That’s true, of course, yes, countries do need more energy, but they also need to protect precious natural resources. For example, fisheries, which provide fantastic food security for the region, unique in the world, because the Mekong River happens to be the one river in the world which is providing food, livelihoods and many other benefits for a population between 60 and 65 million people across the four countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Don Sahong dam is supposed to be built on just one of the many channels the Mekong River divides into, in the area of Siphandon in southern Laos, so why is it a concern for both upstream and downstream countries?

The reason why this particular channel where the dam is being built is such an enormous international concern, so much so that more than 100 scientific experts from universities around the world concerned with geography, concerned with wetlands, concerned with conservation, signed a petition that this is an area which there should never be a dam. And the reason they gave and the reason the other governments along the Mekong give for being worried is that the Sahong channel, of all the seven channels that the Mekong divides into in this area called Siphandon—which translates in English as four thousand islands—is the only channel that all the year around, the majority of fish can swim upstream around the rapids, around the waterfalls, from Cambodia and even some of them really long distance, strong large fish can swim all the way up from the Delta in Vietnam into Laos. This is a unique passageway.

But at a recent meeting in Pakse, Laos, Mega First, the company building the dam, said there would be no significant impact of the dam on both upstream and downstream countries.

It’s very easy to counter that argument. They are in no position to make this claim without conducting investigation, scientific research into what we call trans-boundary effects. You can throw out comments—‘It won’t have any impacts’—but where is the science? They haven’t produced any reports about what the impacts might be on Cambodia, what the impacts might be on northeast Thailand, because eight provinces of Thailand also border the Mekong. That’s why so many Thai people are involved in demonstrations as well against the Don Sahong dam.

I made a visit to one of the company’s project sites recently. It seemed to me that they had been trying to collect scientific data on the types of fish in the Sahong channel and trying to prove that other two channels in the area can be alternative passageways for fish to migrate. Is their study not convincing to you?

They have only just started doing these studies, and at the same time they are talking about launching this dam in 2015. Now then, all the serious fish studies done by scientists around the world are usually based on a minimum of four to five years. So we’re going to have a superficial study, which they will not submit to peer review. If you have done scientific research, you have to submit it to other scientists to review it first and to test it in a laboratory under scientifically rigorous conditions before you start experimenting actually on the Mekong. What is very clear about the way the Laos government and the developer are moving on this project is that they decided to go ahead with the project whatever scientific information is developed about fish behavior and maybe the fish are not going to accept being diverted into two unfamiliar channels. And this is what the experts fear about the future of the Mekong, that this dam will only bring grief, will bring a massive loss of fisheries and the people in communities living along the Mekong, their poverty will be increased by the result of this dam construction. If anybody benefits from the dam, it would only be the businessmen and the politicians living in the capital, Vientiane.

In your documentary, you also include the Xayaburi dam construction, in northern Laos as well. Compared to that dam, which will block the entire Mekong River, the Don Sahong is much smaller in size, just 260MW, and is set to block one channel of the river. Why do people need to worry so much about this smaller dam?

When you point out that the dam is actually much smaller in its capacity to generate electricity than the Xayaburi dam, this is one point which is absolutely true, which makes one wonder why the dam is being built at all. When on the one hand it’s generating the small amount of electricity, but all the fishery specialists who have dealt with this particular area and have done extensive research, unlike the company, and they all have come to the conclusion that this little dam can do even more damage than the Xayabui dam, which is much bigger because the Xayaburi dam is much further to the north at a long distance at the other end of Laos.

This dam directly impacts on the massive number of fish. We’re talking about the biodiversity of over 200 different species of fish of which 100, or 50 per cent or more, are migratory fish that will be completely blocked by this channel. So as one fishery expert has said time and again, it does not make sense to build a dam which generates only a little electricity but on the other hand is bringing such huge risks to the future of the Mekong and to the entire ecosystem. The Tonle Sap, the great lake in Cambodia, and the Delta in Vietnam are all dependent on the free flow of fish and the free flow of water going through the Four Thousand Islands. Once you put a block there, once you stick a dam, however small, if it’s blocking the most important channel for the fish to get through and if they can’t find suitable alternatives—and the experts say there are no suitable alternatives—then the fish species will simply die out, and we are looking at a future in which from being one of the most productive fisheries in the world, the Mekong and many parts of it will just become semi-stagnant because it’s not just this dam. If this dam goes through, they want to build nine more dams. And this threatens a crisis for the entire Mekong region.

As you know, the Lao government has said it needs more energy to develop its national economy and that it has no other options but hydropower to meet its goal. How would you justify the need for energy with fish for the populations?

Well, one thing which needs to be said very clearly: There are alternative ways to generate energy. You don’t have to be building a hydroelectric dam in the middle of what should be a protected area, because of the amazing ecosystem around Siphandon, where the dam site is supposed to be. It’s an area of incredible beauty which could and should be protected under the International Ramsar Convention, which is special. We have the World Heritage Sites for Archeology and other places; we have International Marine Parks for special areas to protect coral reefs at sea and inland water is known as wetlands and wetlands sanctuaries are protected by the Ramsar Convention. Now, the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, requested both the Cambodian government and the Lao government to sign up this particular area, which straddles the border to the Ramsar Convention. Cambodia signed up in 1999, but unfortunately the Lao has never signed up to this Ramsar Convention, so that leaves them free to build the dam, bang smack in the middle of this beautiful wetland area.

So, until now do we know anything about how much the Don Sahong dam would cost and where the electricity generated from the dam would go?

We are not being told these by the Malaysian company, Mega First. They are very big on their claims about how good their dam is, but there is a massive information gap about the fishery and fish behavior and fish study. These they haven’t done and as for their detailed plans of how they will use the electricity, this is also not being made public.

In your film, one can see a lot of protests carried out by communities living along the Mekong in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam against the Lao’s Don Sahong dam. Are you suggesting that is the way people unsatisfied with the dam should do to put an end to it?

Well, the same way that all kinds of projects around the world which have been so much against the interests of the people, that there is such a flood of protests that the company is forced to retreat. We have the government of Cambodia opposed to it; the people of Cambodia opposed to it. In Vietnam, it’s the same. The fishermen, the communities, the Delta region and the Vietnamese National Mekong Committee and the Vietnamese government are all telling Laos: Please stop the construction. No more construction of any dams on the Mekong until all the scientific research and studies have been completed. How can they get the Lao government to heed this message? First of all, by increasing the volume of their protests. The Vietnamese prime minister needs to say it louder and clearer, and he needs to say it publicly in Mekong River Commission forums and stop this game of pretending there is this unity between the four nations of international spirit of cooperation.

On this dam question, there is no international spirit of cooperation. There is no consensus that any more dams should be built. On the contrary, the majority of the MRC are against this dam going ahead, certainly at this stage. One of the Vietnamese delegates actually said there should be five to 10 years to properly study and monitor the process of fish migration, the different fish species, fish behavior and whether it is possible for any kind of fish-pass technology to mitigate the impact of building the dam. But the evidence at the moment definitely suggests very strongly that it is unsustainable and impossible to mitigate. That’s why NGOs are calling for the project to be scrapped, to be cancelled.

Among the four Mekong River Commission member states, which one do you think is the most influential in calling a halt to the dam project? Why?

Vietnam. Because, first of all, the stake is enormous for Vietnam. If Vietnam cannot stop this dam, their delta will be destroyed. The combination of climate change, salinization with the sea coming up more and more and the building of the dam, all the Vietnamese experts are saying that Vietnam in the next 20 to 30 years will cease to be the second largest exporter of rice in the world. That would not only be a devastating blow to the Vietnamese economy, it will be an enormous setback globally because it means the world rice prices will shoot up in the market. So every time in 20 to 30 years, when United Nations agencies are trying to buy rice on the world market to feed a particular population of a particular country that’s starving, it means the absence of Vietnam to be able to contribute rice on the world market will have a serious global knock-on effect, which would be so negative. So there can be another way to stop the dam, for the UN agencies to understand the implications for their own work of 11 dams being built along the Mekong. The destruction of the Mekong delta will have a global impact. At the moment, we’re not hearing enough voices of concern from major international agencies. So within the region Vietnam has got the strongest clout within the Mekong River Commission of the four member states to oppose to dams, but they need a great deal more international backing to be successful in persuading Laos to think again about a wider international interest.

Finally, how do you expect your film to help change the situation of the Don Sahong dam project?

Well, one film is not going to change the situation, but I hope my documentary will contribute to an educational campaign, a consciousness-raising within the region, and maybe something people have not previously digested about the injustice of the way these dams are being imposed on the people of the region and the suffering and damage that they are going to cause to their lives. Through an awareness of this, there will be more pressure on governments in the region and more pressure on the United Nations and other international agencies outside the region. So hopefully my film will make a little contribution to building up that international organization which is needed and that international protest that is needed to have some sanity to take over in deciding whether the dam should be built or not and international consensus. No dam should be built unless it’s based on sound scientific evidence that it can be done in a way which does not destroy the fisheries. But, without the science, without the rationality, these dams must not be built.