THE Mekong river, sustaining around 60m people, mostly rural and poor, is the world’s largest and most productive inland fishery. It is hardly surprising, then, that NGOs and downstream governments are fretting about the impact of yet another planned upstream dam. On December 11th the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an intergovernmental body of the four riverside, or riparian, states (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) along the lower Mekong—held a public consultation over Laos’s plan to dam the river two kilometres north of its border with Cambodia.
Along with Vietnam, Laos’s other downstream neighbour, Cambodia is unhappy with the Don Sahong dam project. Environmental NGOs, such as the WWF and International Rivers (IR), worry about the damage it could cause to communities and fisheries—particularly the Mekong giant catfish and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. So Nam, who heads the MRC’s fisheries programme, said that there was still too little data on how the Don Sahong would affect Mekong fisheries. He also said that the engineers’ proposals to mitigate damage—diverting water away from the channel across which the Don Sahong will be built, and making two other channels wider and deeper—would fail to attract migrating fish.
The Vietnamese delegation to the MRC insists it will take five to ten years of study to know how the dam will affect fish migrating through the region. Other concerns raised include the Don Sahong’s blockage of sediment, used as fertiliser by downstream farming communities, and its effects on Si Phan Don, the tranquil archipelago in which it will be built. A lack of transboundary studies has impelled several regional NGOs to call for Laos to cancel the project.
That will almost certainly not happen. Although MRC rules require countries to submit proposed dam projects on the Mekong for prior consultation (to allow other riparian governments and interested parties to voice their concerns), it is toothless. The decision to build or cancel a dam remains the sovereign right of each national government. The Lao government hopes to begin construction early next year, and has already started preliminary road construction in the area (though the dam’s developer, Mega First Corporation, insists that it remains in negotiations with the Lao government and has not yet signed any contracts).
Downstream governments and NGOs fuming; Laos’s government listening congenially and then pressing ahead all the same: if this all sounds familiar, that’s because the same happened with the much larger Xayaburi dam in northwestern Laos, nearly two-fifths of which is now completed. Laos did add some features to mitigate damage then: fish ladders, bypass channels and even a lift, as well as supposedly “fish-friendly” turbines. It may do something similar for the Don Sahong.
But Laos has made no secret of its desire to become the battery of South-East Asia. It has at least 23 hydroelectric dams currently operating along the Mekong. By 2020 it hopes to have 93 more, with another 28 on the horizon after that. Most of the power those dams produce will be exported—either sold or traded (for power during the dry season) to neighbouring countries. The Lao government anticipates hydropower will become its major source of revenue by 2025. Reconciling its ambitions with neighbouring calls to preserve the delta is sure to keep the MRC busy for a few years.