Editor’s note: The government of Laos is defending its decision to move forward on the controversial Don Sahong dam. Lao officials say they have done what they can to allay concerns of downstream countries over the dam, which environmental groups warn could have devastating impacts on the Mekong River’s fish and communities that rely on them. VOA Khmer’s Say Mony recently interviewed Daovong Phonekeo, director-general of Laos’ Department of Energy Policy and Planning, during a field visit to the dam construction site, just 2 kilometers from the Cambodian border.
There have so far been a lot of concerns about impacts of the Don Sahong dam, especially regarding fish migration and water flow along the Mekong River. How would you respond to those concerns?
We were aware of the concerns. We have started studying this project since 2006, and up to now we have a lot of information and data. We are now very sure that with the mitigation measures we are going to do, [the dam] would have a very small impact to the downstream, or even to the upstream, about fish migration. As you can see, now we are working on the two channels to replace the Don Sahong channel for fish migrating. So, now there is good evidence, in a scientific way, that the fish can use other channels to migrate. That’s why we don’t think that it would have impact on downstream countries.
Some scientists say the two channels, the Hou Sadam and Hou Xang Pheuak, are unlikely to work, because they are narrower and shallower than the Don Sahong channel, and the types of fish having migrated through the Don Sahong channel for generations may not be familiar with the two alternative channels.
There is a wrong understanding that fish migrate only on the Don Sahong channel. If we ask the local people, fish can migrate in every channel. Some reports say that most fish migrate only on the Don Sahong, because the other channels have been smaller and they get somehow obstructed by the sediments, by the rocks, by the detritus, and nobody maintains the channel so that the fish can swim easily. Before, there was no regulation, so fishermen put all the traps in every channel, so the fish are afraid and they cannot use the other channels; that’s why the government put some regulations that fishermen cannot put traps. But you can still fish with easy methods, for example, fishing rods or nets, but not traps. When you use traps, the fish cannot pass. That’s why we have put regulations on how to fish on those channels to improve fish migration.
Is it true that Don Sahong is the only channel through which fish migrate all year round?
No, it’s not true that the Don Sahong channel is the only migrating channel. We have seen that maybe it’s the most important one, but not the only one.
Some people say during the dry season that is the only channel that the water can flow through, because it is the deepest channel, and as for the other channels, it cannot.
No, that’s not true. We can see from the water flow taken by experts that the other channels right now the water flow on the Sadam and Hou Xang Pheuak is more than the Hou Sahong 10 years ago. That means the flow now is similar to what Hou Sahong was 10 years ago. So, that means there is enough water for the fish to use. That’s why we would like to demonstrate and invite all the concerned people to come and see the site, because if they only read newspapers, read only reports, but they don’t see the site, then they cannot get a good picture of what the reality is. That’s why we would like people to come here and see what we are doing. This is the easiest way to understand that it would have no significant impact.
How significant is the dam for Laos?
Of course, for Laos, any dam is very important, because Laos has no other options to improve its economy. We are a mountainous country; we don’t have much land for paddy fields; we have no access to the sea. We cannot get the fish from the sea to feed our people. And of course, we have no other fossil fuels, like gas deposits or oil resources. So our only option is to develop hydropower. And our country, as I said before, is a mountainous country, so it’s suitable for the development of hydropower because we have high head; that’s very efficient and we have a lot of rivers flowing into the Mekong River. This is a kind of good natural condition to develop hydropower.
When is Laos or the Malaysian company Mega First is going to build the Don Sahong dam?
We expect to start this dry season, after the prior consultation has been completed. The prior consultation will be completed by Jan. 25, 2015. After that, the company will sign some contract agreements with the contractors. We have civil contractors; we have machine contractors. So different contractors will sign the contracts to start. Then, there will be some mobilizations within the camp, which takes maybe two more months. After that, they can start with the excavation and construction work. The project will be completed by 2018.
Critics say the prior consultation process is a meaningless process, because even though some member countries of the Mekong River Commission do not want the dam built, if Laos wants to, still it can go ahead.
For the development of the Mekong River, we don’t need consensus. The purpose of the prior consultation is to provide the other member countries with the information, and then we have to listen to the concerns from the other member countries, and after that we will study the concerns. If the concerns are legitimate, is the concern really there, and how we mitigate and then we cooperate together. And then, we can show what the developer can do that has no significant impact.
I think if people say the consultation process is no use; it’s not correct. If you do not do any prior consultation, how can other countries provide their concerns to us officially? We cannot only listen to some NGOs or listen to some people saying [things] without any grounds or good evidence. I have heard some concerns saying that if the Don Sahong dam is built, 50 percent of the water will be lost. I think this is a very nonsense statement. How can you retain 50 percent of the water? Even if you want to, you cannot do it.
The other three member countries—Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam—have so far expressed their concerns. How has Laos addressed those concerns?
Yes, we have addressed those concerns. We have hired consultants. We have hired experts to look at the project and look at the impacts. If the impacts are about the fish, then we hire fish experts to come and study. Like I mentioned earlier, this study is not from last year. They have studied since 2007, after the government signed the MOU. It has already passed almost seven years, and we have collected evidence that if there is an impact we have to mitigate it. The way to mitigate is acceptable. I think the people who are concerned, they have to come here and see what exactly we are doing, not listen to anybody else and have no idea what we are doing.
I understand that some people think that we are blocking the whole Mekong River, then they are afraid of course because they don’t know the exact facts. I understand them. That’s why we would like to have this consultation and provide information. We invite media to come, the NGOs to come, to explain to them and listen to their concerns, not just be at home and say, ‘Oh I have some concerns that the fish would not come,’ or something like that, without seeing what we are doing. Maybe it’s not the correct way. I saw that a few NGOs who before said they had big concerns, but they never come to see the site when we invite them. We have done the site visits two times before but the NGOs have never come. They said it’s not sustainable and has a lot of impacts, but they never come, including this time, also organized by the MRCS, they did not join. So, I don’t know what to do, how to explain to them, how to bring this information to them.
We cannot knock on every door and provide the information. That’s too much. We cannot do it. It’s outside our possibility.
Can you tell me how many dams Laos is planning to build on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries?
On the Mekong, we have identified, according to the reports from the MRC, five projects above Vientiane and two projects in the south. So in Laos we have seven projects that are feasible to develop. And we have two projects jointly with Thailand, so if Thailand agrees to develop, then we can develop. If Thailand does not agree, then we cannot develop. These are shared projects with Thailand. On tributaries, now we have ongoing projects under construction, about 14 projects, about 5,000 megawatts, and under study about 50 projects, about 9,000 megawatts.
Do you have any final words to say?
I would like to convey some messages, that you have to listen to both parties: the people downstream and the people who want to develop. You have to listen to all the facts and to see what is there. I understand that some people who are fighting the Lao dam in order not to have other dams built maybe in Cambodia, maybe they have a hidden agenda. We don’t know, but we are trying to say, ‘Please, you have to see the dams one by one,’ because the dams are not the same. They have different aspects; they have different characteristics. That’s why: please come to see and provide your comments according to what you have seen. Do not talk and talk without seeing the project site. That’s what I would like to recommend to the people, to the organizations who believe we have done nothing. But we have done most of the most possible things, like hiring experts and listening to everybody and every comment to improve the mitigation measures and minimize the impacts.