Tag Archives: SIphandone

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.

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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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Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.

In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia — all members of the commission — participated in the meeting. The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.

“Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing” construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission’s chief executive officer, told reporters. Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.

The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting. Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.

Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory. The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream. Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong, would transform the river, the world’s second-most biodiverse river after the Amazon, “into a giant freshwater pond”.

“That would be the end of the Mekong River,” he said.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed. “Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely,” Trandem told ucanews.com.

Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an “empty political statement”. “All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place,” she said.

This article by Stephen Steele was originally posted here on June 27, 2014 on the UCA News website.

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Filed under Cambodia, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Laos, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Vietnam, water

A Casino at the Khone Falls in Laos?

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos.  Image: Corbis

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos. Image: Corbis

At the end of March 2014 the Lao PDR government will consider a proposal to build a special economic zone slated for tourism development and other unspecified commercial uses in Siphandone, one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse areas.  The SEZ will showcase a casino located less than one kilometer from the famed Khone Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia.

“The Siphandone area is set to become a more sought after tourism destination with many more activities to experience,” remarked Buasone Vongsongkhone, Deputy Governor of Laos’ southern Champassak province on Monday, March 17 after a meeting to discuss the proposal.

Vongsongkhone said the plans for the SEZ will include a casino and other facilities in keeping up with developing tourism trends in the Siphandone and Khone Falls area while protecting the environment.

“At the meeting we discussed how to regulate the casino to ensure the zone has proper security.”

What Vongsongkhone did not discuss was the impact of the new SEZ on the relatively untouched ecosystem of the Siphandone area.  Siphandone, translated as “four thousand islands” is where the Mekong River fans out into a waterfall and islet ridden expanse more than 15 kilometers wide.  The sparsely populated area has been described as an environmental oasis and is home to numerous native fish and bird species.  The Khone falls area is the perhaps the last habitat where endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin can be found in the wild.

Satellite image of Siphandone.  Khone falls is the on left side of the image.  Google Earth

Satellite image of Siphandone. Khone falls is the on left side of the image. Google Earth

Laos’ growing reputation of holding some of our world’s last untouched natural areas and idyllic vacation spots has brought increases in international tourists to Siphandone area.  With the increase in tourism, the need for regulation and protection is obvious, but is marking a zone for economic development first and environmental protection second a sustainable approach or is it just another way for local Lao officials and outside investors to gain quick wealth through the exploitation of Laos’ abundance of resources?

Last week in an article in the Vientiane Times, the official English language outlet for Laos’ state controlled media reported “the government attaches great importance to developing SEZs to boost the country’s growth, which is crucial to lifting people out of poverty and enabling Laos to graduate from the list of least developed countries by 2020.”

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

The track record for SEZs in Laos, often dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese investment, is sketchy at best.  In Vientiane, construction of the That Luang Marsh SEZ (yet to begin commercial activities) has negatively impacted the local urban environment.  The natural wetland filters and holds the capital city’s waste water acting as a terminus of the city’s century-old waste canal system; many of these canals are now blocked by construction.  Much of the That Luang wetland areas has been filled in and long-time residents have noticed an average rise in temperatures as water is removed from the ecosystem. 

In Laos’ northern Bokeo province, the Golden Triangle SEZ dominated by the Chinese owned King Roman Casino complex has a seedy reputation as a conduit for money laundering from China and zone of human trafficking. The SEZ has scarred the scenic views of the Golden Triangle area, also known for its tourism, with open quarry mining and industrial development.

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

To make matters worse, the Siphandone area is slated for the construction of the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam located  on the only of Siphandone’s Mekong channels that allows for the passage of hundreds of species of migratory fish.  In September 2013, the Lao PDR government notified the Mekong River Commission that the Don Sahong dam project would begin construction in 2014 despite years of protest and opposition by local and international environmental NGOs.

Eco-tourism opportunities such as river cruises, dolphin sighting tours, village homestays, and fishing demonstrations have brought sustainable sources of income to local communities in the Siphandone area for years.  Investors interested in building large resorts and casino complexes will likely be majority Chinese and Vietnamese taking more than they provide while leaving a stained and irreversible mark on one of the Earth’s most scenic spots.

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