Tag Archives: Mekong hydropower

Lao National Assembly Approves Don Sahong Dam

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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.”

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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.

 

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Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

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Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

Show 3 footnotes

This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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Energy and Environmentalism on the Mekong: Time to Reach Across the Aisle

In recent years, two powerful narratives have emerged from mainland Southeast Asia. Generally speaking, discussions of the region focus around one of two topics: economic development and environmental degradation. For example, by typing “Mekong” into Google News the first page of results will show articles like this and this. As one can imagine, these two views of Southeast Asia are often in opposition and proponents of each rarely see eye to eye, sometimes going so far as to ignore the other side altogether. Recently, the battleground of these two narratives has been the construction sites of hydroelectric dams (both real and planned) that dot the Mekong River. Proponents of economic development see these dams as a necessary component to continued economic growth in the region. On the other hand, environmentalists point to the unknown ecological costs of the Mekong dams and argue that there are hidden costs to supposedly cheap hydropower. What is lost in the increasingly polarized game of right and wrong is a larger, more nuanced picture of the region and its needs. Some say that the Mekong needs dams while others argue that the region needs better protection measures for its natural resources. But what Southeast Asia really needs is for development fans and environmentalists to stop ignoring each other, and to restart the dialogue. Continue reading

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The Growing Transport Network and Dams on in the Greater Mekong Subregion

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