laos mekong dam protest

Activists protest the Don Sahong and other proposed dams in Laos. Pic: International Rivers

This week the controversial Don Sahong Dam proposal was revisited by the 20th Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council Meeting in Bangkok on Thursday.  The MRC discussed whether the proposal needed (as a mainstream project) to go through the  prior consultation process instead of the simpler prior notification process the Laos government had already submitted.

Since 2008, the proposed Laos hydropower project, to be built across the lower Mekong River mainstream, has dipped in and out of media consciousness, returning with a vengeance in 2013 when the Laos government decided to begin construction on the dam, to be built in the 4,000 Islands region near the Cambodia border.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director of International Rivers NGO, told Asian Correspondent: “In 2008, this process came to the attention of international press when the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] was first conducted for the dam.  The MRC came back with recommendations for the EIA in 2013.”

Fisheries experts saw significant faults in the proposed design of the fish passages on the dam which were to rely on passages comparable to those designed for salmon species, as Asian Correspondent reported on last fall.

“There is such a large diversity of species that migrate.  Dam passages would have to cater to up to 1,000 species of fish—70 percent of the fish in the Mekong are migratory,” Trandem explained.  This diversity is greater than salmon species.

Yet the MRC has had little success in halting the process.  Last fall, the Laos government invited country representatives to the site in an attempt to woo them but the incident apparently backfired and neighbouring countries balked at the project.

This week, the MRC met in Bangkok for the 20th Council Meeting and Laos offered a gesture of cooperation by agreeing to submit to prior consultation, as requested by neighboring countries, yet Trandem sees it as an empty gesture.

“The Laos government agreed to prior consultation…[however] they also expressed their intention to construct the Don Sahong Dam, so we understand this as an empty political statement in which Laos tries to show they are committed to the 1995 Mekong Agreement but in reality has no intention of cooperating on a regional basis,” she explained.

While the MRC has responded with a “weak” statement, Trandem is heartened by the pushback from Vietnam and Cambodia.

“Vietnam and Cambodia have been very vocal.  They are asking for 1) construction to stop, 2) for further study on the construction, 3) for work to be suspended for a period of ten years.”

In contrast to this setback, Thai villagers living along the Mekong were heard by the Thai courts when they presented a lawsuit regarding the larger Laos Xayaburi dam to be built upstream.

“On Tuesday, the Thai Supreme Administrative Court accepted a lawsuit brought about by villagers in response to the Power Purchase Agreement Thailand signed to import 95 percent of the electricity produced by the dam,” Trandem said.  She sees this as a bit of good news, in the ongoing battle for fisher folk to preserve their livelihoods.

“The villagers stated that it violated their constitutional rights and the 1995 Mekong Agreement,” added Trandem.

Experts and fisher folk alike are concerned about the potential impacts of hydropower projects built across the Mekong River.  They say the loss for the local fisheries is not properly understood.

Asian Correspondent spoke with fisheries experts from the U.S. Pacific Northwest at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which represents tribal governments with decades of experience working with hatchery mitigation efforts and improving fish passages.  The collaborative is working to bring back the once prolific salmon species migrations in the Columbia River system which previously boasted 16 million migrating salmon but dropped down to 600,000 after being choked off by hydropower projects beginning from the 1930s.  Biologist Stuart Ellis and Fisheries Manager Mike Matylewich said restoring migrating salmon populations to the 1.2 million salmon counted for the 2013 fall season, has come at a significant cost.

The Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia, has a hatchery compensation package to bring back endangered salmon species that cost about $10 to 20 million USD a year (factoring in operating and equipment costs) but the measure has brought back the species in the area from the brink of extinction.  For instance at the Granite Dam, previously there were just a few spawning fish, but it’s now up to 56,000 Chinook salmon, so the Nez Perce tribal project is seen as a success.

These measures are vital for the communities that rely on fisheries.  North American tribal advocates such as the First Nations Development Institute contend that the loss of this core part of their diet has contributed to a host of health problems, such as diabetes.  One can only wonder what the impacts would be in the Mekong, which not only relies on fish for protein but also on periodic natural flooding to grow rice in the region, another food staple.

“The Mekong is the second largest river system in the world in terms of biodiversity and the world’s largest inland fishery,” Trandem said, noting the impact will be even greater than what the Pacific Northwest faced.

According to Trandem, Vietnam is coming to recognize via experience, not only the loss of fish, but toxins from algae, and the issue of earthquakes from dams.  Vietnam has cancelled 400 hydropower projects.