With a reported 60 million people dependent on the Mekong River’s ecological environment, the Lao government’s decision to build a new dam in the Don Sahong area is ringing alarm bells throughout Southeast Asia.
Laos has announced plans to construct its second Mekong hydropower project in the Don Sahong area, backed by foreign business investment, with a start date of late 2014. Once completed, the dam is predicted to operate year-round and will produce 260 megawatts of electricity. This announcement has raised concern, particularly from development agencies and environmental protection bodies, and is causing tension in the region.
The Mekong river is the 12th longest river in the world, and the 7th longest in Asia. From the Tibetan plateau, it runs through Yunnan province in southwestern China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and is of crucial importance to many communities living along its banks. The Mekong is also a major trading route linking China’s southwest to the rest of Southeast Asia. Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam set up the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995, to coordinate use of its resources. Upon Laos’ announcement of the construction of a dam, the MRC displayed some concerns.
Construction of this dam could damage the tourist industry, an important source of income for Laos, especially the “Four Thousand Islands” region, where the dam is being constructed. With construction too close to the Khone Waterfall, a major tourist destination, and an ecologically unique and important area, there are various threats. The rise in water levels to successfully support the dam would decrease water flowing through the waterfall, damaging ecological systems and reducing its appeal as a tourist destination.
The dam could also damage food production in an already impoverished region. Thai non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are protesting against the construction, as they say it will damage local fisheries and agricultural fertility in the eight Thai provinces bordering the Mekong. Especially in the Lower Mekong Basin, about 40% of the population live within 15 km from the Mekong River.
Fishery experts have established the importance of Don Sahong channel as a migratory channel for fish coming in from Cambodia. If these fish can no longer migrate, Cambodian fisheries will suffer and cause issues for communities depending on these fish as a source of food and income. Data estimates 60 million people’s dependence on the Mekong’s fisheries, with thousands depending on the Don Sahong channel alone.
The construction of this dam is also a test on political ties between the Southeast Asian nations. Cambodia has already demanded that all construction be halted until environmental impacts are properly reviewed, while Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on dam building. Tension comes at a time when plans are being made to accelerate trade within the Mekong region, by stepping up bilateral and trilateral country agreements. These plans are expected to contribute to higher standards of living throughout the region.
However, as of yet, Laos is refusing and ignoring advice from NGOs and the MRC, and has announced that it will carry on as planned. There is uncertainty as to which organizations are funding the construction of the dam, which will be carried out by two Malaysian engineering firms. This uncertainty is causing further problems, as the Lao Government has already been accused of being unaccountable and rejecting environmental principles while undermining the Mekong region’s sustainable and beneficial development.