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Facts from Si Phan Don – Don Sahong : Dam vs Traditional Way of Lives (1)


The resounding noise of turbulence was heard from far away. The water spray diffusing around deep crevices in the rocks could be seen as soon as we arrived at the riverbank by walking. A little boat can navigate through the exceptionally trong current amazingly.  Most of residents including the owners of “Li” and their fishermen teams as well as some merchants who came to buy fish, chatted before going down to the “Li” in the afternoon.


“Li” is a unique fishing gear used only in Muang Khong, Champasak, southern Laos.


Our team, staff from Transbordernews.in.th, and 4-5 reporters were at Tad Pho. This is a part of Hu Sahong – one of several water channels when ‘Mekong’ flows to Si Phan Don (area also called 4,000 islands).


In late June 2014, we visited this area right in fishing season, when fish were migrating from downstream. We rushed to observe Hu Sahong during the rainy season. We were afraid that the abundant fisheries resources we experienced might not last long as Laos had granted a concession to Malaysian investors to construct a dam blocking Hu Sahong.  While we were travelling to the area, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) held its Council Meeting in Bangkok.


The four member countries ;Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, discussed the about Don Sahong hydropower project.  Laos last year have applied the dam project to ‘Prior Notification’, according to the Mekong Agreement in 1995 claiming that the project was considered to be their sovereign.  However, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand disagreed saying the project should undergo “prior consultation process” since it would create transboundary impact to other countries, and called to suspend the project for 10 years for further study.


Pressure from three countries over the past months pushed Laos to take a step back. However, Laos’ Energy and Mines Vice-Minister Viraphonh Viravong has clearly confirmed that, “With the cooperation,  Laos government will continue to develop the (Don Sahong Dam) project  in a  responsible and sustainable manner. ”

Following the ‘Prior Consultation Process’, Laos will submit project document to MRC. Then each member country will hold consultation according to the laws of their country.   (For the Xayaburi Dam, Thailand held 3 consultations but still inadequate accourding to Thai laws, thus Thai villagers filed a lawsuit at Administrative Court).


The consultation process would take 6 months. Therefore, the construction should not be started during a half of this year. However, Hans Guttman, the MRC’s CEO said that there was no voting procedure.


The result of MRC meeting is unknown to local fishers who rely on fishing and their Li. They just have to accept their fate.


“They said that this year we can use our Li because we don’t have other job. But I don’t know when they will completely prohibit Li. Just recently, other channels like Hu Xang Peuak and Hu Sadam, fishing by Li is forbidden.  I think we will be ordered not to use Li after the bridge construction is completed”, said Uncle Tan (not real name), a fisherman who owns 3 sets of Li. This year, 2 of them were sunk as water level raised very quickly. The last Li still makes a good catch for them each day.


Tad Pho is a significant ecosystem of Hu Sahong, where local fishers built their Li and Luang (a set of 2 – 6 Li). If Hu Sahong is blocked by the dam, the area will become a reservoir, no longer any trace of Tad Pho and Li any more.


There are more than 20 Li and 7 Luang in Tad Pho area. It is an amazing local wisdom of Sipandon. Most of the Mekong fish species swim upstream to spawn, especially in the wet season. Those fish which cannot resist the force of the strong current would be swept into the Li traps located in different water channels in rapids. But, not every channel has a proper location to place Li. This ancestor’s wisdom identified exactly the best locations for Li, right at the migration path of fish.

“Father’s weir was inherited from their ancestors for countless generations. I followed my grandpa and father to Li since I was very young.  It was probably created a hundred years ago. In the past, there were much more fish. Some years, there were too many fish that broke the traps because we couldn’t collect them in time. Even though we hired more people, there were not enough to collect all fish in time. By an abundance of fish and the strong tides, our li were broken. We came across such situation many times before. Sometimes we had to scoop the fish out and throw it away and didn’t feel sorry for the loss “, uncle Tan reminded the old days.


He said that Lao authorities recently announced that fishing by Li is prohibited and new careers would be provided.  However, there is no clear plan or details given. Moreover,  there is no mention about compensation.

“Even though I am offered 200 million kip to buy my Li, I won’t sell it because we earn a lot from it each year. Last year each fisherman earned 20 million kip from their catch. There are 7 fishermen. I want to transfer it to my nephew like I was given this treasure by my grandfather and father. ”


However, it seems the wish of Uncle Tan is not realistic. A company started to build a bridge from the mainland to Don Sadam island, which is close to Hu Sahong. This might be for transporting material and heavy equipment for large scale construction.


The proposed Don Sahong Dam has an installed capacity of only 260 MW, just double of the controversial Pak Mun Dam in Thailand.


“If they are building the dam, we can do nothing. We have to do what the government says”.


In the evening, some fishers carried big fish up from the trap to sell it to the middleman, while small fish would be put into piles and shared among themselves for their dinner.


Although the catch is not good this year, they still hope for a better catch next year, as they have been doing for hundred years.


Written by Irrawaddy Dolphin

(translated from Thai)

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