As Laos dreams of becoming the battery of Asia, residents who rely on fishing for their livelihood and food supply are too afraid to speak out
When the monsoon season comes in early July, it brings turbulence to the Mekong River. Fishermen on Si Phan Don — a name meaning 4,000 islands which aptly evokes the riverine archipelago in southern Laos — take calculated risks when they climb through the rapids, every step bringing the potential of injury from the sharp rocks below.
But fear never gets the better of Somporn, a 46-year-old fisherman from Don Khon, one of the myriad island in Laos’ Champasak province. When he and other fishermen arrive at dawn to set their traps,
he finds one of the ropes that are attached to poles implanted in either side of the river and ties himself to it. With no life jacket, the rope is Mr Somporn’s sole safety measure as he braves the torrents of water to reach the one of the rocks in the middle of the river.
There he waits in silence, watching a young fisherman collecting fish in a li — a traditional Lao trap made of bamboo — in the water about 10m away. The younger man uses bamboo strips to string the captured fish together and when he is finished gives a signal to Mr Somporn.
Then they start their teamwork. Mr Somporn throws the loose end of the rope to the younger man, who quickly but securely attaches the bunch of fish. Mr Somporn drags the rope back, and soon he is making the precarious walk back to the shore. For all that effort, the catch is about 20 fish of differing size that are sold to a middleman.
“The catch used to be better. The catch at the beginning of this monsoon season is unusually low,” Mr Somporn said. “I don’t know why.”
Fishing is a year-round industry and a way of life for many in Si Phan Don. The multitude of water channels have long provided migration routes for the myriad species which populate the area.
However, the risky business has lately been reaping less reward. Like Mr Somporn, Lao fishermen across the southern area have reported a noticeable decline in the catch over the past decade.
In the eyes of Hueang, a 60-year-old resident of Don Khon Kho, the declining fish numbers are just one sign of a changing ecosystem. This year, the tide rose unusually fast, reaching its highest level in about five days when usually it takes a month.
Communities living on the Thai side of the Mekong River have also felt the effects, with greater flooding wreaking havoc with their vegetable crops and fewer fish caught. For Mr Hueang, Mr Somporn and many others, the cause of their woe lies a long way upriver, the hydroelectric dams being built in China.
But there is another threat downstream and closer to home they dare not speak of. Champasak province is not only home to the archipelago that forms the heart of the Lao fishery industry, but also the proposed Don Sahong dam just a few kilometres from the border with Cambodia.
Mr Hueang cannot bring himself to talk directly about the construction project that is quietly being prepared so near his home and the source of his livelihood.
“We can only hope for a better catch next year,” he said.
THE SECOND DAM
In 2006, the Lao government and Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad (MFCB) signed an agreement for the Don Sahong hydroelectric dam project, which was to be the second of nine dams built along the lower Mekong. The first is the controversial Xayaburi project in the country’s north, which is currently about 20% complete. When finished it would have an installed capacity of 1,285MW.
Before beginning Xayaburi’s construction, the Lao government failed to publicly release Environmental Impact Assessment reports or outline plans to assist those the dam would affect. It instructed Thai developer Ch Karnchang to go ahead with construction before Mekong River Commission (MRC) countries had reached a consensus about how the project should proceed.
The dispute forced construction to be halted, but it resumed in late 2012. Last year, Laos signalled its intention to build the Don Sahong dam with an installed capacity of 260MW, twice that of Thailand’s Pak Mun dam further north on the basin in Ubon Ratchathani province. Laos undertook its normal notification process, arguing the dam would be built on a tributary, called Hou Sahong, and not on the main Mekong river itself. However, the other MRC countries — Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand — disagreed with the Lao government’s actions, saying the project should undergo a more extensive “prior consultation process” as the potential effects were significant. Hou Sahong is known among locals as the most important passage for upriver migratory fish all year round. There are no natural barriers in the river, unlike other Mekong channels which are obstructed by rocks and subject to changing water levels.
Pressured by the other MRC countries, Laos’ Energy and Mines Vice-Minister Viraphonh Viravong announced at a ministerial-level meeting in Bangkok last month that Don Sahong’s construction would be delayed pending further consultation. Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand will be involved in the process. Mr Viraphonh insisted environmental studies have been conducted on all planned hydropower projects. However, precious little information has been publicly released about the Don Sahong dam aside from its location. The environmental impact assessment, mitigation plans for affected residents and even the destination for the electricity remain unknown. “We don’t want to see a repeat of Xayaburi at Hou Sahong,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers. “The risk [of the Don Sahong dam] goes beyond the borders of Laos. It will affect livelihoods and food security throughout the Mekong area.”
The revelation that Laos had pressed ahead with the bridge, in the wake of the controversy over Xayaburi, brought a fresh wave of resistance from the its three Mekong neighbours.
Cambodia and Vietnam have voiced particularly strong criticisms, saying the dam will threaten the livelihoods of 60 million people in the basin, profoundly disturb fish migration patterns and disrupt sediment with potentially damaging environmental consequences. They have called for the suspension of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, along with other projects, for at least 10 years.
In March, about 400 Cambodians protested against the Don Sahong dam in Stung Treng province as they believe it will threaten the rare Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins.
But from Si Phan Don residents there has been only silence, although they are aware of activity in the area. At least three villagers spoke of explosions at Hou Sadam and Hou Chang Phuek, a water channel near Hou Sahong, in recent months. No prior notification was given.
The villagers believe the explosions were designed to artificially widen the water channels and create passages for upstream fish migration as a measure to compensate for the dam blocking Hou Sahong.
MFCB’s Don Sahong project director, Yeong Chee-meng, told the Vientiane Times last year there would be minimal impact on the environment, with the only outstanding issue the impact on fish migration. “We are committed to making sure that the fish passage will be more than compensated for by the new channels we will create,” he said.
As part of its research into the migration routes, the company has attached coded tags to living fish. Twenty thousand kip (80 baht) is offered to fishermen who find the tagged fish and report where and when it was found. The tags are also being used as a lottery, with the first prize being two million kip.
However, the World Fish Centre (WFC) said available data shows fish migration reaching up to 30 tonnes per hour in some areas of the Mekong basin. This is too much for the constructed fish passes to cope with.
Near Thailand’s Pak Mun dam, despite the construction of a fish pass, fishing communities on either side of the dam reported declines in their hauls of between 50% and 100%.
“We know what is good and bad for us,” said Somnuek, 33, a fisherman. “There are dam supporters and opponents. Neither fight each other. Neither speak out because they don’t want to be in trouble.”
Protest in Laos is rare. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have raised serious concerns about the disappearance of activists, the jailing and torturing of dissidents, the lack of freedom of expression and the improper use of the death penalty.
When Spectrum spoke to Lao residents in the lower Mekong, most turned away when the dam was mentioned.
Other undercover journalists who reached Don Sadam were asked by members of the local volunteer police force to give their names, ages and addresses.
On one rainy morning, Tawan, 65, was climbing up a rocky cliff that forms part of the bank of Hou Sahong to access his fish traps. His walking path was completely hidden by the water of the fast-rising tide.
Mr Tawan is one of the Don Sahong dam’s supporters, and said he would quit fishing when the dam construction starts.
“I used to be against it, but I changed my mind after officials came to explain the advantages of the dam. They come to my village twice a month,” he said.
“I don’t think the government will leave us behind. The dam is for the benefit of the country.”
Officials have asked local fishermen to withdraw their traps and allow the fish to pass freely. Construction will begin within the next two years, they were told. The government told them funding and new vocational training programmes would be arranged for villagers affected by the dam.
Don Sahong dam would be a tourist destination that generates income that would compensate for the reduction in fishery, officials said. Southern Laos would also benefit from having enough electricity to service residents all year round — currently the supply in Si Phan Don is unstable, particularly in the rainy season.
No details of the MRC meeting or the neighbouring countries’ concerns about the project were mentioned to villagers.
But beautiful words of a bright future do not persuade Piak, 52, another Don Sadam fisherman. Instead, the officials’ words left him feeling insecure.
“I think the change of the fish passages [by explosion] relates to the decline of the fish catch this monsoon season. I can catch only 20% of the normal quantity,” he said. “This means the dam will also affect the quantity of my fish catch in the future.”
Officials promised to pay Mr Piak 200 million kip for his traps, which in better years have generated about 140 million kip for his family annually.
“The compensation will soon run out. But the traps can feed my family for generations. I plan to pass my traps to my sons,” he said.
“But I have to accept whatever options the government offers. I’m just a subordinate. Other fishermen I know feel the same.”
In southern Laos, fish and other aquatic life harvested from the river are the main sources of protein. Consumption ranges between 15 and 50kg per person per year, according to the WFC. More than 80% of the region’s households are in some way involved in the fishing industry. A trap can yield 10-15 tonnes of fish a year.
Rak, 25, remembers the sizes and quantity of fish caught at Hou Sahong being much greater a decade ago. Having spent time in Thailand as a construction worker, Mr Rak has been exposed to news relating to the dam projects that have led him to believe the Chinese dams in the upper Mekong are behind the change. This is not simply a matter of nostalgia for childhood, as he distinctly remembers Mekong giant catfish appearing in the traps. One was so large that when he sat on it, his feet couldn’t reach the ground.
“We believe a very big fish like that is the Mekong’s guardian. We will release it if we find it in the traps,” Mr Rak said. “I haven’t seen such a fish for a long time. I guess the guardian won’t appear easily when its home is changing.”
FEARS FOR THE FUTURE
The Lao government’s ambitious plan to become the “battery of Asia” will not end with the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. Nine hydroelectric plants are in the pipeline, for now.
Last month, villagers at Champasak’s Phou Ngoy area were visited by a team of Thai staff representing Charoen Energy and Water Asia.
The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lao government in 2008 about a hydroelectric dam project in the Lat Sua area, but later a new dam site was proposed for Phou Ngoy.
The project is still at the feasibility study stage. The procedure being followed for in Phou Ngoy is as unclear to public as that surrounding the Don Sahong dam.
Lao villagers were told that the Phou Ngoy dam would not flood their homes, but paradoxically they have proposed a resettlement programme for four villages near the site.
When Spectrum and other journalists visited the area near the site, we were approached by a local policeman. He asked about the purpose of our visit and finally revealed he was taking care of Thai people who occasionally came to the dam site in vans.
Residents of Phou Ngoy fear the worst.
“Local people like us know the river very well. You can shoot me dead if the dam doesn’t flood my home,” said Chaliao, 70, a fisherman. “I want them to hear my words, no one wants to encounter the loss of their home and their way of life.”
20 Jul 2014