What could be more pressing to Cambodia’s food security concerns than the controversial Xayaburi hydroelectric dam project in Laos? According to Ame Trandem of the International Rivers NGO, the Don Sahong Hydropower Project, to be built at the Siphandone (Khone Falls) area of southern Laos, just two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border, poses an even greater threat. She says, if built, it could have a much greater impact on the migration of fish due to its closer proximity to the Tonle Sap Lake.
“About 70 percent of the migratory fish in the Mekong work their way up from the Tonle Sap, so the closer a dam is to the lake, the greater hindrance it will be to fish migrations. These migrations can go as far as China,” Trandem told Asian Correspondent.
While the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam further north is considered a “mainstream dam,” in that it would obstruct the main course of the river, the Don Sahong project has been described by the Laos government as being built on a tributary, a distinction which has been used to bypass international regulations, such as meeting with the Mekong River Commission (MRC). However, in fact the proposed dam is actually mainstream dam, according to Trandem. During the dry season, the channel is the only viable transit route for fish migrations.
The project appears has received little coverage in international media, compared to the attention the Xayaburi project has garnered. A quick web search on Don Sahong Hydropower Project won’t yield much except old web pages devoted to bringing attention to the proposal originally made in 2007.
“It [the project] was dropped because the environmental impact assessment was seen as incomplete,” said Trandem. “The Laos government committed to further studying the impact.”
Despite this, an announcement was made that the project will commence in November, just one month away, released just as Cambodians were making their way to the countryside to honor their ancestors for the five-day Pchum Ben, or ancestors’ day holiday. Trandem said she has not heard back yet from Cambodian fisher folk associations, but expects to soon. “I’m hoping that when Cambodians return, they will have a response to this,” she said.
The country has also been plagued with flooding over the holiday, making that the most pressing concern.
While Asian Correspondent was unable to reach 3S Rivers Protection Network for comment on the Don Sahong dam project, Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, was available. “We do not support this. We request for an urgent meeting of the MRC to look at the EIA (environmental impact assessment),” he said.
Malaysia-based Mega First Corporation Berhad is building the dam, apparently the first time it has ventured into a dam-construction.
Advocates for the dam claim it will not block the path of migrating fish. Trandem said, “the company has proposed creating alternative fish channels but there is no evidence this will work.” According to villagers in the area, the company is reportedly blasting different sections of the river with explosives or removing rocks to create passes. “They actually began their work this summer, which Laos initially denied but finally confirmed through an official who declined to give his name. But we have been visiting the site and have seen evidence of work being done. This is not legal, as it violates international law.”
The Laos government has also been confiscating bamboo fish traps from Laos fisher folk dependent on fishing for their livelihood “without compensation”, according to Trandem.
While International Rivers doesn’t know who is funding the dam, Tandem said Mega First and the Laos government jointly own the project.
The potential impact on Cambodia remains unknown, partially because there is no realistic impact assessment for the project “which is why it was blocked before,” explained Trandem. “The EIA was sent back because it didn’t include the impact on fisheries.”
Chhith Sam Ath said food security is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed, not only for Cambodia but also for Vietnam.
Cambodians are 80 percent dependent on fish as a source of protein, most especially the rural poor, according to a report from Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration titled Fisheries Resources in Cambodia: Implications for Food Security, Human Nutrition and Conservation. This report found Cambodia ranked number four in inland fisheries after China, India and Bangladesh, with the country bringing in 400,000-500,000 tons of fish a year.
The World Food Programme reported 40 percent of Cambodian children are already experiencing malnutrition, despite recent economic gains, making the impacts of dam construction an even more pressing.
“This is the second most biodiverse region in the world,” explained Trandem, sharing the organization’s findings of the multitude of fish species that migrate up the river yearly. Chhith Sam Ath agrees the biodiversity of the region is threatened, including the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.
Trandem said the dolphin is highly sensitive to changes in the environment, even changes in river silt which would be an issue during the construction of the dam. There are only 10 recorded dolphins in the area, making their permanent departure from that section of the river “almost a certainty.”
As the country recovers from widespread flooding along the rivers and lake areas, the next step cannot come soon enough for activists and civil society.