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Lao Announces Construction of Second Controversial Dam

PHNOM PENH - The government of Laos is going ahead with the construction of a major dam project on the Mekong River, despite regional concerns.

Laos last week told the Mekong River Commission, a consortium of governments along the river, it was moving forward on the construction of the Don Sahong Dam and would break ground in November.

Critics say the decision goes against a 1995 regional agreement meant to mitigate conflict over dams on the Mekong and will mean the disruption of migration patterns of fish species, as well as other ecological impacts.

The $3.8 billion dam is expected to produce 260 megawatts of power after its completion.

The Oct. 2 notification of Laos to the River Commission is a breech of the agreement among river countries for prior consultation on such projects, said Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia director for the environmental group International Rivers.

The dam will be built just 2 kilometers from the Cambodian border, she said. “And what we know is that it will block the only channel that allows year-round fish migration,” she said.

That means a reduction in fisheries and a loss of food security for “tens of thousands” of Cambodians, she said.

The Mekong River Commission is not enforcing the regional agreement, she said.

“What we see right now is the MRC is unfairly taking the side of Laos at the expense of other neighboring countries,” she said. “The MRC is facing a legitimacy crisis, and reform is desperately needed if it wants to have any credibility in the future.”

Third-party mediation is needed, she said. “Cambodia should demand this before it’s too late for the Mekong River.”

Surasak Glahan, a spokesman for the commission, defended its position, saying that prior consultation is for “discussion only” and does not determine final approval of any project. “So the Laos government has the final decision to go ahead with the project.”

The commission, comprised of representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, has sent documentation about the dam project to member countries, but no regional meeting has been scheduled, Glahan said.

Te Navuth, Cambodia’s general director for the commission, declined to comment, saying Cambodia has not received official notification from Laos on its plans for the dam.

The Don Sahong Dam, which will be built by the Mega First Corporation, a Malaysian company, is Laos’ second controversial dam on the Mekong River. Critics also say the Xayaburi Dam on the river would be detrimental to the region.

Tradem said the Don Sahong is being built near large populations of fish, above the habitat for endangered species of freshwater dolphins and catfish.

The Cambodian Fisheries Administration said in a recent study that the impacts of dam construction along the Mekong could cut Cambodian fish consumption in half, from 49 kilograms per person per year to 22 kilograms per year by 2030.