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Local NGOs, Lower Mekong Countries Raise Concerns Over Planned Dam in Luang Prabang

FILE: Namngum 1 Hydro Power Plant Dam in Laos

The groups added that the new project, along with existing hydropower dams, would affect the hydrology of the lower Mekong, especially the Tonle Sap Lake, which is critical to a large section of Cambodians.

Five Cambodian NGOs have raised concerns over a planned hydropower dam in Luang Prabang, Laos, pointing to the potential effects on water flow, fish population and sediment transfer in the lower Mekong.

The 1,460 MW Luang Prabang dam is expected to begin construction later this year, making it the fifth of nine dams in Laos on the Mekong basin. The new dam has compounded concerns already expressed by civil society over the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams because of the economic and environmental impact on the critical Mekong River.

The Cambodian civil society groups – 3S River Protection Network, FACT, The NGO Forum on Cambodia, My Village, Center and Environment Preservation Association –Thursday expressed alarm in a press release at the potential impact on fish migration, hydrology and sediment transfer that would occur from the hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream.

The groups added that the new project, along with existing hydropower dams, would affect the hydrology of the lower Mekong, especially the Tonle Sap Lake, which is critical to a large section of Cambodians.

“We are concerned by the timeframe proposed by the Laos Government to commence construction at the end of 2020 as it will not provide sufficient time for developers to conduct more rigorous studies upon the comments and recommendations put forth by relevant stakeholders,” the statement reads.

The groups are concerned there is insufficient time for developers to conduct more rigorous studies in response to the comments and recommendations put forth by stakeholders if the construction commences in late 2020.

The Laos embassy in Phnom Penh couldn’t be reached for comments on Thursday. But, the Laos government has defended the project in the past, by saying the dam’s design team will come up with “a good construction plan,” like the Xayaburi dam.

Cambodia National Mekong Committee officials recently participated in the 9th Mekong River Commission Regional Stakeholder Forum from February 5 to February 6 in Luang Prabang, to provide input and conduct consultations.

Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, could not be reached for comments. Kol Vathana, deputy secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, who lead delegation to Laos, declined to comment on Thursday since he was taking part in the final day of meetings.

“When I go back to Cambodia, then we can meet up and talk about this matter,” he told VOA Khmer, via a messaging application.

But, according to presentation provided by Kol Vathana, Cambodia did recommend establishing a mechanism for risk management and compensation, especially if the dam breaks, as well as ensuing the proposed fish pass was effective for all kind of migratory species.

The livelihoods of 60 million people depend directly on the 2,700-mile-long Mekong River, which originates in China and empties into the South China Sea. As a food source, the river "touches the lives of more than 300 million," according to the World Wildlife Fund.

China has already built eight dams on the river, while more than 20 others are under construction or being planned in Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai, according to International Rivers.

Gary Lee, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, said the Luang Prabang dam should not be built, given that it would displace hundreds of households and have major social and environmental impacts.

“There is no guarantee that Luang Prabang dam will proceed. There is strong opposition from communities and civil society. Some government officials from neighboring countries have also expressed concerns about the project,” he said.

A Mekong River Commission statement released Friday showed that Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia had expressed concern over the proposed dam and wanted for further studies and impact assessments to be conducted.

The also cited “poor and inconsistent” use of data in the project documents, calling for better in-depth studies to facilitate further discussion about the dam’s impact.

“This statement will call on the Lao government to make every effort to implement the identified measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate potential adverse transboundary impacts,” said An Pich Hatda, the MRC Secretariat’s chief executive officer.

Phloak Sareth, 48, a villager in Kratie province who lives on Tnaut Island in the Mekong River in Cambodia, said villagers are as it is uncertain of the water levels because it had become irregular off late and that the amount of fish in the river had also decreased.

“In the dry season, there is more water or some time it is not the dry season yet, but there is very low water [levels],” said Phloak Sareth.

Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia program director at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., said all the upstream dams, including the Luang Prabang dam, will significantly impact the Tonle Sap, affecting a major source of food for the Cambodian people.

“The Luang Prabang dam will block sediment flow to the Tonle Sap, and sediment is the key ingredient for producing the food web which feeds the world's largest inland fishery,” said Eyler, who is also the author of the “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.”