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Dam would block fish migrations that feed millions of people in region and threaten Irrawaddy dolphins and giant catfish.


With its picturesque waterfalls, tranquil waterways and a colony of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, the pristine beauty of the Mekong river flowing through Siphandone (Four Thousand Islands) in southern Laos, is a magnet for tourists and an important site for international conservation.

But this unique corner of the world is threatened by a government plan to build a hydroelectric dam only a few kilometres upstream — a plan that has triggered a cascade of protests from environmental organisations and international scientists. If the dam goes ahead it will have a major impact on the Irrawaddy dolphins and another endangered species, the giant catfish. It will also severely reduce the flow to the Khone Falls, Asia’s largest waterfall.

Carl Middleton, the Bangkok spokesman of International Rivers, an environmental NGO said: “This stretch of the Mekong is globally renowned for its biodiversity. Building the dam would block the massive fish migrations that help feed millions of people within the region. The stakes are huge. This is one dam that must never be built.”

On the Cambodian side of the border the Mekong river is recognised internationally as a conservation site by the UN’s wetland conservation body, Ramsar. There are moves to do the same on the Laos side.

In March 2006, the the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (LPDR) signed an agreement with Mega First Corporation Malaysia, to do a feasibility study to build a 240MW dam across the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel, bordering Cambodia. A Project Development Agreement was signed in 2008, but as yet no final decision has been made by the LPDR.

No construction has started on the dam yet. Tomorrow, International Rivers together with local NGO partners in Thailand and Cambodia will launch a campaign to stop the Don Sahong Dam project as part of a Save the Mekong Campaign. The launch coincides with the International Day of Action for Rivers.

The fisheries expert who provided a report on the negative impacts as part of the Don Sahong dam’s environmental impact assessment, who asked not to be named, said: “If this dam goes ahead, it will be an ecological disaster for fish migrations routes between Cambodia and Laos. Over 300 species of fish would be adversely affected”. He claims his objections to the project were not properly taken into account.

Another report from the research body, the World Fish Centre, based in Penang, Malaysia, said the project “would block the crucial passageway through the Hou Sahong channel, the only major channel of fish migration between Cambodia and Laos, causing havoc to the normal breeding cycles and put at risk 70% of the fish catch in the Lower Mekong Basin.” The report says that wild capture fisheries in Laos amount to 64,600 tonnes — 78% of the country’s total fish production.

Ian Baird, a Canadian fisheries expert, who has spent years researching the Mekong, explained: “this dam does not only impact fishermen living in area of the dam but far beyond the 4000 Islands. Some species swim up from the estuary in Vietnam through Cambodia, all the way up to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. And 60 million people are dependent for their food and their livelihood on fisheries.”

The total catch from the river is between 1 and 2m tons a year. In a report for the World Fish Centre in 2007, Eric Baran and Blake Ratner calculated that the direct value to the Laos economy from wild fisheries is between $66m and $100m, contributing 6% to 8% of GDP.

Landlocked Laos is one of the least developed countries in the region, and authorities have been eager to harness one of its few natural resources, an abundance of mountains and surging rivers. The World Bank and the ADB-Asian Development Bank have both pushed the Laotian government to embrace hydropower development and to supply power to their energy-hungry neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. There are already seven hydroelectric dams in Laos and 11 more dam projects are planned.

The massive Nam Theun 2 project, with a capacity of 1088MW, now under construction, will supply much of the growing energy needs of the region.

Luesak Soumpholphakdy, who owns the Sahaphae Hotel on Don Kong island, said: “after Nam Theun 2 [Dam] we have enough electricity. Why do we need a Don Sahong? I am worried about the fish and the dam.”

The LPDR tourism ministry is against the new dam because they believe it will undermine the country’s huge potential for eco-tourism in Champasak province.

The project is also in conflict with a joint agreement between Laos and Cambodia to work together on both sides of the Mekong for the protection of water resources, waste management, dolphin conservation and sustainable tourism.

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