Laos as one of the region’s least developed countries, wants to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” selling energy to its neighbors in order to develop.  Environmental experts warn that this could undermine the food security of not only Laos but the whole area which is heavily dependent natural seasonal floods which trigger migrating fish and nourish rice crops.

Asian Correspondent recently spoke with villagers on the island of Don Det and Don Khon in southern Laos about the impending 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam.  While most claimed to not know about the project, one person had positive comments.   Boun Sayavong, a tourism operator, assured Asian Correspondent that most villagers wanted the dam.  “The government talks to us, asks us, and the government listens.”  He said a government survey showed 60 percent of the people in the 4000 Island region were in favor of the dam, while only 40 percent were not.  “If most people think it [the dam] is ok, then the government decides to do it.   We are one community here, not a community divided.”

The 4000 Island region of southern Laos is a major tourist attraction and home to hundreds of fish species. Pic: Shutterstock.

Asian Correspondent was unable to locate the government survey.  However, Mekong region fisheries expert Ian Baird told us villagers will get arrested if they speak out against the dam.  Baird, who speaks Lao, said he was not aware of the survey cited but does know about the attitudes of the villagers, having years of experience living in the country.  “He’s telling you what the government wants him to say.”

Ame Trandem from International Rivers, an environmental NGO, has also worked in the area and said villagers are careful to only make favorable comments about the dam in public.

One famous Lao activist, Sombath Somphone, went missing a year ago.  Some media alleged that his disappearance was connected to his ties with international groups against the building of hydro-power dams in Laos on the Mekong river, but Shui Meng Ng, Sombath’s wife, disagreed.  She explained to Asian Correspondent in an email, “While Sombath has always advocated broader dialogue and participation on the overall development approaches in Laos and, especially advocated for sustainable development which is more balanced, taking into consideration development’s impact on culture, nature, spiritual well-being, as well as the economy, he never criticized specific projects nor actively supported any organizing against hydro-power dams.”

On first glance, the potential impact the Don Sahong Dam seems small.  According the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), only 11 houses will be affected by the project with just 63 people relocated on the adjacent islands of the Hoo Sahong (channel), where the dam will be built.  This channel is just one of the many channels in the region but as the deepest one, experts like Baird and Trandem contend during the dry season it is in fact the only one is suitable for the large fish migrations that make their way up the Mekong.  Engineers for Mega First Corporation, the Malaysian company handling the project, think it’s the most sensible one for harnessing the area’s hydropower potential.  The region rests on a plateau where the Mekong drops off to the lower plains below and creates the famous falls which draw a reported 113,684 foreign visitors a year, according to a 2006 report.  These falls form a barrier for fish during the lowest part of the dry season, except for the Hoo Sahong channel.

Baird believes the consultants for Mega First lack expertise on fish.  Though Mega First reports to have researched fish catches in the area and is planning to build fish passes to accommodate estimated migrations, he said the EIA refers to the kilos of fish the villagers have caught, not the species.  “There are about 200 species in the falls area and about 100 are migratory,” said Baird.  “They are comparing them with North American salmon.”

Mega First Corporation did not respond to requests for comments.

People in Laos depend on fish for protein, which is a staple.   Laos is already grappling with childhood malnutrition rates as high as 40 percent, much like its southern neighbor Cambodia.  Rice, the region’s other staple, is also dependent on the seasonal flooding of the river during the wet season from May to October.

Yet Laos as a least developed country sees hydrological power as a potential resource to sell to its neighbors.  Thailand is developing quickly and needs more.  Northeast Cambodia already buys power from Laos as only 26 percent of its people have access to state-operated electricity.  Those in remote areas buy power from private operators purchased from neighboring countries or they use generators, solar power or nothing at all.

Cambodia stands to potentially lose the most as a downstream neighbor of Laos.  Remote villages in the northeast have already experienced just how destructive damming the Mekong’s tributaries can be.  The 3S Rivers Region of Ratanakiri Province has lost about 1,000 people from complications from hydropower dams built upstream by Vietnam on the Sesan River in 1996.  Initially there were no warnings issued when water was released.  Tradem said villagers didn’t understand what was happening and thought the spirits of the river were angry with them.  Due to push back from a civil society group known as the 3S Rivers Protection Network, warnings have now been implemented.  However, bureaucracy has slowed the time takes them to reach villages in Cambodia, who sometimes aren’t notified until two weeks later.  Reservoirs have also shown to be breeding grounds for a toxic form of blue-green algae which has been proven to kill livestock and people.   None of the communities have been compensated for their losses.  Complicating matters more, Cambodia also buys power from Vietnam, subsidizing the dams that have killed its people.

(MORE: Cambodia be dammed: Laos moves ahead with hydro project)

Trandem questions the wisdom of experimenting with rivers for power as they have been the means of people’s livelihood in the Mekong region.  “More research needs to be conducted in order to know how this will impact fish species.”

3S Rivers Protection Network, which refers to the Sesan, Srepok and Sesong River that converge to join the Mekong at Stung Treng city, have had a battle on their hands.  Though created in 2001 to fight against Vietnam’s projects and inform communities, they are also speaking out against Laos’ projects.  Meach Mean, coordinator for the group, said people can support the Mekong by putting pressure on the owners of Mega First, who are connected to Cambodia’s popular Angkor Beer, brewed by Cambrew.   He’s hoping a boycott of the beer will help the company to take notice.  In turn, Cambrew is jointly owned by Carlsberg Beer.

Vietnam, to its credit, has apparently cancelled some 400 hydro-power projects, according to Tradem.  She hopes Laos avoids the same mistakes.

As the region enters its dry season, Laos invited government officials from neighboring countries for a site visit mid November.  Though Trandem was unable to attend, she heard through her advocacy network that officials returned home and demanded the project be discussed by the Mekong River Commission (MRC).   Laos had said the project is not a mainstream dam, thus avoiding the more lengthy “prior consultation” process.  Vietnam and Thailand have joined with Cambodia to push for more studies on the impact of the proposed dam.   The MRC is set to meet in April of 2014.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is determined to harvest its own hydropower rather than just buy from its neighbors and is moving forward on the highly controversial 400 megawatt Lower Sesan 2 Dam despite its disastrous potential to block fish migrations for not only the Sesan but also the Srepok River as they migrate up the Mekong from the Tonle’ Sap Lake.  A conference was recently held at the Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh to air concerns over the feasibility of the dam and environmental impacts on the beleaguered 3S Rivers Region.  Meach of 3S Rivers Protection Network asked the room of high-level attendees “What can be done to help my people?”  Presenters from Conservation International NGO replied that they hoped the conference began the process.  This issue remains largely unreported by international media.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com