Regional media and NGOs in Southeast Asia are calling the controversial Don Sahong dam on the Mekong River a “time bomb,” and the project’s recent approval by the Lao PDR government has initiated a ticking countdown. Daovong Phonekeo, director general of the Energy Policy and Planning Department at the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines said in an email statement released earlier this month that the National Assembly approved a concession agreement for the Don Sahong Dam with Mega First Corp, a Malaysian developer which has never built a hydropower project.
This legislation gives the green light for the project’s construction, which is now planned to commence by the end of the year. While the project’s 260MW hydropower capacity is small and intended for local use, its impacts will be felt region-wide as researchers believe the dam will block off the only channel accessible during the dry season for the yearly migration of hundreds of fish species endemic to the Mekong River. The Mekong is the world’s largest inland fishery with millions of people living along its banks who rely on daily fish catches for food consumption and income.
“The Don Sahong Dam will certainly negatively impact migratory fish moving between Laos and Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The question is, to what extent, and how much might it be possible to mitigate impacts?” said Ian Baird in an interview with ExSE. Baird is a geologist from the University of Wisconsin with decades of experience researching fisheries and communities in the Don Sahong area. “The risk is high because the Khone Falls area is so important for long distance fish migrations, and because it remains highly uncertain how efficient the measures being developed will be. Many uncertainties remain, but the stakes are high, and this makes the project risky.”
The dam is located less than 2 kilometers from the Cambodian border in the Siphandon area of southern Laos. Siphandon, literally “four thousand islands,” is one of the earth’s most unique land and waterscapes. Here the Mekong navigates mazes of rocky channels, creating a throng of islands, and expands to more than 15 kilometers wide at some parts. A fault line runs through this area creating picturesque waterfalls which attract many thousands of tourists from the region and around the world. . The Sahong channel, where the dam will be built, is the only major channel without a rocky cascade and thus is the only channel accessible by seasonal fish migrations.
Mega First, the dam developer, has conducted research on fish migration over the last 18 months to identify fish species and determine migratory patterns, hoping that findings reveal migratory fish are using other minor channels close to the Sahong channel for migration. A 2014 Mega First study by Kent Hortle, a respected Mekong fisheries expert, suggests China’s damming of the Mekong has regulated the river’s dry season level to permit fish passage through channels previously unavailable to fish.
Increased pressure from civil society groups, international NGOs, and academic research has prodded Mega First to widen and deepen these minor channels, but the effectiveness of these mitigation efforts will not be known until the dam’s construction is completed. Peter Hawkins, the main fisheries consultant for Mega First is on record for saying, “’if these passages do not prove to be sufficient they will continue to work on them to create the best bypass possible.”
The new legislation means dam construction will likely begin before Mega First’s fish mitigation research is complete, making the project a risky gamble. International Rivers’ Southeast Asia director, Ame Trandem called for a two year moratorium on the Don Sahong Dam until more research can be done on impacts to fish migration.
“The Don Sahong Dam is not a done deal,” Trandem wrote in a statement on the International Rivers website. “Until the project developer can prove that [the dam] will not harm the Mekong River’s rich fisheries and the unique ecosystem services it provides to millions of people in the basin, it is in the best interest of Laos and the region to give the Mekong River a much needed reprieve.”
Meanwhile, Laos pledges to maintain productive economic and diplomatic ties with the neighbors that surround the landlocked state. One must then question Laos’s calculus for pushing forward the dam’s approval process when stakeholders ranging from the official to grassroots levels in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam all have voiced opposition to the project. However, neighboring governments have yet to comment on the dam’s recent approval.
Moreover, Laos gave only nominal consideration to the regional notification and consultation process mandated by the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental organization of which Laos is a charter member. More critically one must question whether or not the dam’s approval includes a regional or geopolitical calculus at all, since most evidence indicates that the dam serves as a pet project of a powerful Lao political family with prospects and license to develop the Siphandon area for investment and tourism.
Regardless of Siphandon’s development trajectories, waiting until Mega First’s own research is published and vetted by stakeholders is the most pragmatic course forward for the Don Sahong Dam. Any other pathway could gravely impact regional food security, including Laos’s own food supply, and place Laos further at odds with its downstream neighbors.