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Film Highlights Potential Harm of Mekong Dams

An extraction from the documentary "Where Have All the Fish Gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam" shows a massive dam under construction on a stretch of the Mekong river in China.
An extraction from the documentary "Where Have All the Fish Gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam" shows a massive dam under construction on a stretch of the Mekong river in China.

A documentary showing the possible impacts of hydropower dams on the Mekong was screened in Phnom Penh Tuesday night, a week after Mekong countries failed to decide on a dam proposed in Laos.

About 200 people, most of them students, watched the film, “Where Have All the Fish Gone?: Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam,” which was directed by journalist Tom Fawtrop and screened at Pannasastra University in the capital.

The 23-minute film shows a massive hydropower dam under construction in China and street protests in Bangkok over another 11 proposed dams on the lower Mekong.

Officials from the Mekong River Commission, from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, ended meetings last week over a dam proposed in Xayaburi province, Laos, after failing to decide whether it could be built. More meetings over the dam are expected later this year.

Fawtrop said Tuesday he wanted the film to draw attention to the plans for dams on the Mekong that would “destroy one of the world’s greatest rivers just for the sake of generating electricity.”

The dams could have “huge costs,” he said, “loss of fishery, loss of environment, loss of biodiversity.”

“If the Mekong is destroyed, the fishery, according to estimates, will be reduced by something like between 40 percent to 60 percent,” he said.

At least eight hydroelectric dams have been proposed on the upper Mekong, with three already operational and at least one other under construction in China. Another 11 dams including the Xayaburi have been planned downstream.

The film was shot from locations in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam over three and a half months between 2010 and 2011 and includes numerous interviews with environmental experts who warn of unpredictable impacts on people and the environment were the dams to be built.

Fawtrop said the dams, if built, would have a huge impact on Cambodia, where the majority of people depend on the river for their daily protein.

“The economists working for the government and working in various ministries have completely failed to do any homework at all,” he said. “They can tell you how much electricity we can get, but they can’t tell you how many fish we will lose.”

“And a politician who wants to build the dams for political reasons may tell everybody, ‘Oh, the dam is good for your health,’ when it is actually very bad for the health of the fish and the health of the people and the health of a nation,” he said.

Up to 600,000 tons of fish each year could be at risk from dam construction, 35 percent of that in Cambodia, according to an environmental assessment by the Mekong River Commission.

Touch Seang Tana, chairman of Cambodia's Commission for Conservation and Development of the Mekong River Dolphin Eco-Tourism Zone, said the Mekong’s Irrawady dolphins would also be at risk from dam construction.

“If built, the dams will seriously affect natural dolphins because they eat fish,” he told VOA Khmer after viewing the film. “When there are no fish, how can dolphins survive?”

He estimated between 155 and 175 dolphins to be living along the stretch of the Mekong in Kratie province, which are a draw for tourists.

“If there is dam construction as the video shows, I think the river will lose its authenticity in the future, providing no more natural resources like fish, a good environment and a fantastic landscape,” said Ing Sethearin, a university student, after the film.

Lower Mekong countries like Cambodia must choose wisely between their food needs and their energy needs, she said.