The deadline of the public consultation of the Laos controversial Don Sahong dam, is coming up soon this January 25, 2015. Lao government will finalize all the social and environmental concerns of the dam project. It is believed to officially push forward the dam construction.
In the mid of overwhelming criticism and polarized standing-points among the lower Mekong river basin governments, communities, and environmental activists, the PNPCA deadline was proposed to be postponed for a better future of the Mekong River and her people. In accordingly, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) should seek for more consultations with all stakeholders, especially the local communities, whose livelihoods much rely on the river.
The International environmental organization, the International Rivers has also launched an online petition calling on the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam “to cancel the Don Sahong Dam and seek more sustainable energy options that ensure the future of the Mekong River’s fish and her people,” (see here).
PNPCA is a rubber stamp
The first regional consultation meeting (PNPCA) of the Don Sahong dam was held by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat in Pakse, Laos, in December 12. The meeting ended with disagreement on existing research reports, and many stakeholders required for further research and transboundary studies.
The 260MW Don Sahong hydropower project (DSHPP), was heavily criticized by its flaws and untested findings of its environmental impact assessment (EIA) report and the conduct of PNPCA process, which its meetings have often excluded local affected communities.
The scientists and researchers pointed out that the Procedure of Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process is prevalently incompetent and inconsistent, i.e., the process is different in various Mekong countries.
For instance, in Vietnam, the local NGOs held the pre-hearing meetings by themselves with no MRC officials involved. In Lao PDR and Cambodia, there is no such a public hearing at community level; while in Thailand, there were a several consultation meetings taken place at both local and national levels. More importantly, the local people in the four Mekong River basin countries have not yet been sufficiently informed about the dam project.
Until now, even the MRC, the Government of Lao PDR (GoL), and the dam developer company, are not firmed on the PNPCA procedures and especially whom they should ‘inform, consult, and seek for a consent.’ The important question is whether the local people’s opinions would be considered for the final Don Sahong construction decision of the GoL or not. For now and for the best, the deadline of the PNPCA process therefore should be postponed.
The environmental activists agreed that the prior consultation meeting was likely to be no use and would only serve to justify the construction of the dam in Laos’ Champasak province. Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers (IRs) told the Bangkok Post that the Lao government has clearly stated they are proceeding to build the Don Sahong dam, in spite of the ongoing prior consultation process. “With this attitude, it is difficult to see how the process can be anything more than a rubber stamp,” she said.
As we can see that “the process will simply serve as a ritual or a rubber stamp for the dam,” said Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Thailand-based Chiang Kong Conservation Group and the Mekong-Lanna Network on Cultural and Natural Resources Conservation
Under the 1995 Mekong agreement on ‘sustainable development of the Mekong countries’, any act in interrupting the flows of the Mekong river, is required intensive consultations and comprehensive studies. Up to 60 million people in the Greater Mekong Subregion are depending on fish and free flowing waters of the Mekong to earning their livelihood and economies. The postponing of PNPCA’s deadline is meant for a better future of the Mekong River and her people.
Methodological flaws and untested studies
The DSHPP developer, the Mega First Corporation Berhad (MFCB), its technical team conducted a preliminary fish study back in 2007. The survey area was around the Khone Falls, Hou Sa Hong, Hou Sa Dam, and the surrounding area. However the survey was still limited within Laos border.
Moreover, the MFCB’s research methodologies were the uses of fishing-gear to catch the fish and then classifying fish species, and studying fish larvae in those channels. The fishing gears, traps and preserved fish, were displayed to visitors as part of the field-trip prior to the MRC’s regional meeting on December 11, last year.
During the field trip, MFCB staff tried to explain to all participants that their studies involved some new and scientific technologies, which they also engaged with local communities in conducting their studies about fishing and classifying the fish.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the study of fish bypass channel, the dam developer seems not to acknowledge that their research findings conflicted with other studies. The Hou Sadam channel, where the MFCB claimed to be naturally used as a replacing channel for the Hou Sahong (which will be blocked by the Don Sahong dam) for fish migration. The Hou Sadam channel is actually smaller in size and its flow is all year-round 5 times less fast than the flow in Hou Sahong channel. Therefore, it is likely to be a case that the Hou Sadam channel is suitable for all kinds of fish to migrate, and will function as if the Hou Sahong channel.
For the mitigation methods, beside the fish ladder, the MFCB technical team plans to put the wire-mesh in the inlet and outlet of turbine to make sure no fish will pass the turbine. However, no mention about the larvae, which will be damaged by pressure of turbine, the layer of larvae will break, they cannot mature and eventually die out.
Robert Mather, South East Asia Head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told the Voice of America, there are serious questions about whether this evaluation process is worthwhile. He said that there are three main issues as such the timing of the PNPCA process, the lack of clarity about really the limits of what the process is actually about and the lack of any real transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA) discussions around. “Then I really don’t think you can expect the process to really yield anything meaningful,” he said.
Denial of transboundary impacts
The Don Sahong dam site is less than 2 km to the border with Cambodia and both countries are sharing the area as a tourism spot for watching Irrawaddy dolphin. According to the WWF report, there are many newborn Dolphin died young and that is as a result of the increasing toxic in the water. The pollution during the Don Sahong construction will be likely to impact those endangered mammal as well .
In contrast, the MFCB officials said in the meeting that there will be no impact at all in terms of the hydrology (e.g., sedimentation, quality and quantity of the river flow, etc.) of the Khone Falls and to the Mekong River. The MFCB compared the amount of water storage in the Nouzhadou Dam (upper-stream dam in China) and the Lower Se San 2 Dam (Cambodian dam on a tributary of the Mekong River) to illustrate that there will be a very little amount of water flowing in to the Don Sahong dam to be stored. They concluded that with a little amount of water, it is assumed that the Don Sahong dam will thus cause less impact in comparison to the other dams.
The MFCB technical team continued with their presentation that the estimated out-river-flow from the Don Sahong dam will be about 1600m3/s and the river-flow will remain at the minimum speed flow at est. 800m3/s in the dry season. However, the river flows upstream and downstream of Hau Sahong has not sufficiently studied by the MFCB in comparison to the whole and complex-system channels in the Siphandone area (Khone Falls). Including if the dam built, the increased river-flows and water-velocity in other channels also have not been studied by the MFCB.
If built, the dam will crucially strike to food security and the economies of Vietnam and Cambodia. According to the World Fish Center study, it mentioned that those are two countries with a large amount of inland fish consuming in the world. Inland fish is the main source of protein for millions of people in downstream Mekong.
Fish is not only the main source of food for a whole family, but the riverine lifestyle sustains the gender relationship and activities in a family. The big fish will be sold out in the market and the small ones are cooked at home. While men catch fish, women sell those fish at a market. If the MFCB’s fish mitigation of the Don Sahong dam does not work, it would likely to break the chain of food supply to million of people and threaten their riverine livelihood.
The negative impacts due to the Don Sahong dam to the neighboring countries are inevitable. The dam will block the all year-round channel, specifically, the Hou Sahong is the only channel available for dry-season fish migration. Leading to the demise of important fisheries, the source of food for Mekong people. Besides, the dam will potentially cause an extinction of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which are also a big source of eco-tourism.
Unknown, uncertainty, and the ugly truth
A technical team member of the MFCB said “we don’t know, and nobody knows,” when the Cambodia National Mekong Commission representative raised a concern about transboundary impacts of the Don Sahong dam to the inland river hydrology in Cambodia and their people.
The answer reflects an ugly truth that the transboundary impact is not in MFCB’s prior acknowledgement or studying agenda. There is also no mechanism to make the company hold the responsibility and accountability during and after the dam construction.
Furthermore, even though the investor is MFCB, the builder is the Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned hydropower engineering and construction company. The Sinohydro is already undertaking preparatory work on the Don Sahong Dam site on behalf of Malaysian investor, the Mega First Corporation.
Accordingly, Mr. Sính, a Vice Director of Green ID asked the MFCB about the social impact “for an amount of 3,000 – 4,000 laborers who will be settling around the construction site in Laos, within a period of 4 -5 years. Is there any study on the social impact?”, but there was no reply from the MFCB representative.
The week of the first regional consultation, activists boycotted a regional consultation on the Don Sahong dam, just eight weeks after filing a formal request for an investigation of the Mega First Corporation. Duong Pov, deputy governor of Cambodia’s Stung Treng district, told the Voice of America Cambodia that the people living along the Mekong River bordering Laos do not want the project to happen. “If built, it will affect us. Once it exists, the solutions would be complicated,” said the deputy governor.
During the regional consultation, it was disappointing to experience that the voice of local people was not recognized by the MRC, the GoL, and the MFCB. Besides, the release of the statement of the Save the Mekong Coalition and Vietnam River Network, no one knows about the public consultation procedure, what is next? and what is an actual purpose of public consultation?
Even though the MFCB’s fish studies involved local people in the fish collecting process, it is still not yet to be called a proper way of ‘consultations.’ Gary Lee, a representative from Oxfam and IUCN representative, those organizations asked MFCB for a proper and comprehensive research of the Don Sahong dam, for at least 10 years of studying and more studies on biodiversity impacts.
Yet, a cumulative impact has not been sufficiently studied. Nguyen Huu Thien, a Vietcnmese freelance researcher pointed out that the Don Sahong dam’s EIA report does not include the cascade impacts from the dams along the Mekong River. A further eight dams are proposed in Laos, including the 1,285MW Xayaburidam is under construction, and many mega-dams have been already operated upstream in China.
While Lao government is pursuing to be a so-called ‘energy hub’ for the Mekong Region, the act of ‘river grabbing‘ becomes even more prevalent, when the GoL’s energy development is proceeding at the expense of the health of the Mekong river and the livelihoods of the people. Especially, when the dam developer MFCB seems lacking of data and specific studies in both the environment and social aspects of the dam site and its surrounding area.
This January 25 will be the end date of PNCPA process and the second regional consultation date has not been yet scheduled. It might be too soon for Laos and the MFCB to round-up the PNCPA process. The deadline of PNPCA should be extended for conducting more studies for a better preparation in the second regional meeting. Also, the MRC should seek for more consultations with all stakeholders, especially the local communities whose livelihoods much rely on the river.
 Don Sahong Power Company http://dshpp.com/reports
 Factsheet_WWF Irrawaddy Dolphins http://issuu.com/tracy110/docs/irrawaddy_dolphin_final/1
 The World Fish Center study’s report http://www.worldfishcenter.org/resource_centre/WF-3709.pdf
Hoang Duong is based in Vietnam and working as a freelance journalist with a focus on environmental and social impacts of development projects.
Paw Siriluk Sriprasit is an independent journalist and media researcher. She’s also a co-founder and a trainer at iMekong.org, a media advocacy network for environmental journalists and activists.
Photo credit: Eric Miramon