Thứ Bảy, 4 tháng 10, 2014

XAYABURI – ONE YEAR LATER: DON SAHONG – THE SECOND MAIN STREAM DAM IN LAOS

To the Friends of the Mekong Group

“Rice production in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta is further threatened by the building of the next dam on the main stream, the Don Sahong Dam in Southern Laos. This dam will block the Mekong’s main stream just before the famous Khone Falls, reducing its flow and endangering the Ramsar site of Siphandone and the crops and fisheries downstream. We observed that dry season rice areas are being expanded in Northeast Thailand, Southern Laos and Cambodia. Substantial water abstraction is occurring in these areas. During the past several years water supply during the dry season in the Mekong Delta was reduced severely, resulting in saline intrusion as far as 80 km further inland, adversely affecting crop yields. We call on the Lao government as well as the Malaysian investors to refrain from altering the main stream of the Mekong River to save the Lower Mekong environment and people.” [26-10-2013] Prof. Võ Tòng Xuân, Rector Emeritus An Giang University, Vietnam.

DON SAHONG - THE SECOND DOMINO 

Only twelve months after the ground breaking ceremony on 11/ 07/ 2012 for the Xayaburi Dam (1,260MW), sooner than expected, Laos took the much controversial step to give the green light for the construction of the Don Sahong Dam (260 KW). On October 3, 2013 the Lao government advised the MRC of its intention to build the second run-of-river Don Sahong Dam across the Mekong’s main stream in the Khone Falls/ Siphandone area of Champasak Province located only 2km from its southern border with Cambodia. The Lao government has yet to make official the project’s final design and other details concerning the Don Sahong Dam. Preliminary information shows that this dam would be 30m in height, 100m in width, and situated on the 5km long Hou Sahong Water channel. [5]

Without waiting for the consent of the other Mekong countries, the Lao government has already confirmed that the implementation of the Don Sahong Project will begin in November 2013 with the expected completion in February 2018 and the commercial operation is set to begin in May 2018. The entire power output will be sold to the government-owned company Électricité du Laos (EDL). [5]
Milton Osborne, the author of The Mekong – Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future drew the attention to the fact that the Lao government only notified Thailand and Vietnam but failed to inform its neighbor Cambodia of its intention to construct the Don Sahong Dam. Just like in the case of the Xayaburi Dam, this notification also includes the customary reassurance that “the dam does not create any impacts on the river sections downstream.”


This constitutes a serious breach of protocol on the part of the Lao government since the MRC 1995 stipulates that Laos is called upon to carry out consultations with each member country of the MRC before she arrives at such a decision particularly when such action can detrimentally impact the national interests of the neighboring countries. [6]

The Don Sahong Project not only does away with the Prior Consultation phase, but more importantly, it also fails to make provision for an independent and reliable scientific study on the dam’s impacts on the environment.


PICTURE I: Location of the hydroelectric Don Sahong Dam 260 MW on the Khone Falls [Source: MRC 2013 ]

The Lao decision stirred up a wave of opposition and indignation among the populations of the neighboring countries, civil society groups, and renowned environmental organizations in the world like: IRN/ International Rivers Network, WWF/ Worldwide Fund for Nature… 

What about the Lao people themselves? They are living under a one-party system of government – similar to that of the Vietnamese Communist Party model – with complete control of the public media designed to disseminate misinformation and tout the benefits that could be derived from the dams. The kidnapping and possible assassination of the world renowned Lao social activist and environmentalist Sombath Somphone has dropped a curtain of fear on the nascent civil society groups in Laos. Mister Sombath is a recipient of the 2005 Magsaysay Award, the equivalent of an Asian Nobel Peace Prize. [2]

As for the 20 million inhabitants of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, like always, in addition to being uninformed they also are not given the right to voice their opinions even though they are living at the southernmost sections of the Mekong River and have to suffer from the accumulative impacts of the hydroelectric dams in China as well as in the countries upstream.

As far as the MRC is concerned, upon being informed of Laos’ decision to build the Don Sahong Dam, Mr. Mok Mareth, Cambodia’s former Minister of Environment and current Chairman of the Committee of Environment and Water Resources of the National Assembly, immediately voiced his criticism about the “lack of transparency” on the way Laos conducts itself vis a vis the Don Sahong and Xayaburi Dams. The text message he sent to the Lao government requesting additional information about the Don Sahong Dam met with total silence. He remarked: “The Ministry of Environment of Cambodia never received such reports – this fact raised much concerns on our part.” [8]

More importantly, the Don Sahong Dam will directly and adversely impact the Stung Treng Ramsar Site in Cambodia – one of the most important wetland complex for biodiversity in the Lower Mekong Basin. The fact that Laos did not consult Cambodia can represent a serious violation of both the Mekong River Agreement of 1995 and probably also of the Ramsar Convention.

From Vietnam’s standpoint, Mr. Trần Văn Thông the spokesperson of that country’s embassy stated that Laos should have provided these impact assessment documents before announcing that construction was going to move forward. At the same time, he reiterates the need to immediately convene a meeting of the MRC member countries. He observed: “The most urgent thing is for all the MRC members to discuss and come to a common agreement before construction breaks ground.” [8]
Taking into consideration the fact that the construction of the Don Sahong Dam can result in a total collapse of the ecology of the river and the Mekong Delta, it is in this author’s opinion that this urgent meeting should be conducted at the heads of government or at the least the ministerial level of the Mekong countries that are signatories to the MRC Agreement.

Barring a military solution – in spite of current mentions of the possibility of “wars for water” in the 21st century – this is an important time in history for the neighboring Mekong countries to exert full political, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Lao government to reestablish an overall order for sustained development of the entire Lower Mekong.

THE PNPCA PROCESS AND DON SAHONG

When the Mekong River Committee 1957 transitioned to the Mekong River Commission 1995 with the same four original member countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam; an important change in the new bylaws deprives its members of the veto power. (For the rest of this article, MRC will stand for the Mekong River Commission 1995).

Though the member countries lost their veto power, the MRC Agreement 1995 still requires that all Mekong projects must go through a three-stage PNPCA Process: (1) Procedures for Notification, (2) Prior Consultation, (3) Agreement on a regional decision-making process.

In keeping with that stipulation, the country that initiates a Mekong project must notify MRC and submit the project details to the MRC in order to initiate the PNPCA Process. Past experience with the Xayaburi Dam, the first dam built on the Mekong main stream in Laos, shows that the PNPCA Process was seriously put to the test. This is the first Domino to fall setting a “dangerous precedent” for the future long-range development of the entire Lower Mekong.

DON SAHONG – THE COUP DE GRÂCE 

In spite of its low power output compared to those of the other 11 dam projects in the Lower Mekong (lower that those of the dams built on the Mekong tributaries in Laos like Nam Theum-2: 1,070 MW), the Don Sahong Dam however holds a decisive say in the survival of the fish source of the Mekong River. More than 80% of the Mekong fish species are of the migratory type and depending on their species they take turn to migrate upstream all year round, as far up as Vientiane and even sections of the Mekong northeast of Thailand.

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta have to use the water channels at the Khone Falls to swim upstream depending on their spawning and growth cycles.

Conclusive scientific research projects done by the World Fish Centre 2007 and a recent work named Critical Asian Studies 2011: The Don Sahong; Potential Impacts on Regional Fish Migrations, Livelihoods, and Human Health by Ian Baird of the University of Wisconsin provide abundant information pertaining to the fish source of the Mekong River. [7]

Tom Fawthrop, a British reporter currently residing in Thailand who is also the director of the documentary Where Have All the Fish Gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam, has poignantly illustrated a “Battle Over the Mekong” that was instigated by the exploitation of hydroelectricity resulting in the devastation of the fish source and the deterioration in the lifestyle of the inhabitants in the region. [9]

Even though Don Sahong is not a big dam, it however straddles the Hou Sahong Water channel that is considered most vital to fish migration especially during the Dry Season. This “blocking” Don Sahong Dam will disrupt the ecosystem, create havoc to the water source thus causing the potential extinction of many fish species as well as an alarming reduction in the fish source (estimated at 3 million tons/year – source: MRC 2008) up to now ranked second only to that of the Amazon River in South America. That fish supply traditionally represents the main protein source of millions of people living along the Mekong particularly in Cambodia and Laos. [3]


PICTURE II: Gia Rai rice strand in Bạc Liêu province dying out due to intrusion of seawater. [Source: photograph of Prof. Võ Tòng Xuân]

Laos had indeed sent Prior Notification to MRC but that country has consistently refused to submit the dam project along with a “scientific, objective, and independent” Environment Impact Assessment as required by the Prior Consultation phase to allow MRC and the member countries of the Mekong to reach a common agreement at the regional decision making level.

Ame Tandem is a well-known environmentalist of long standing who commands an influential voice at International Rivers Network headquartered in Berkeley, California. She has persistently condemned the passive coordinating role played by MRC throughout the implementation of the first mainstream Xayaburi and now the Don Sahong Dams. She commented: “If the MRC fails to clamp down on Laos, it will be failing its mandate and will lose any validity they have left as an organization,” she added “The MRC can no longer absolve Laos from its responsibilities; this project must undergo the prior consultation as mandated by the 1995 Mekong Arrangement. A moratorium should also be implemented on all mainstream dam building, so that the MRC’s impact study on the projects – that was agreed upon by Laos and neighboring countries in 2011 – is first implemented.” [1, 4]

At this point, it would be advisable for us to revisit the 18th Meeting of the Mekong River Commission Council at Siem Reap on December 8th of 2011. It was at that Meeting that an agreement was reached to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi Dam Project for a decade (2010 – 2020) as recommended by a special team of experts in charge of the Strategic Environmental Assessment. [4]

Much optimism was shown in the aftermath of the Siem Reap Meeting. The following statement made by Mr. Lean Kean Nor, the Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology of Cambodia reflects that mood: “The outcome today demonstrates the Member Countries’ continued commitment to work together in the regional spirit of the Mekong Agreement to bring about economic development without compromising sustainability of livelihoods of their peoples and the ecology.” The Minister also happened to be the chairman of the Mekong River Commission Council for the 2011-2012 term. [4]

On the contrary, this author holds to a very different assessment of the result of the Siem Reap Meeting in 2011. A reality check would reveal that “the Siem Reap Meeting (12-08-2011) only produced a very fragile agreement for the free flowing of the Mekong’s mainstream.” [4]

In the aftermath of the Meeting, “extremely unusual” occurrences were observed such as the construction of the Xayaburi Dam that presses on uninterrupted – at first discreetly then quite openly to this day. The building of the Xayaburi Dam has become a fait accompli and will be completed in a very near future. [4]

Faced with Laos’ notification to the MRC that she was about to build the Don Sahong Dam, Mr. Chhith Sam Ath, Executive Director at the Forum on Cambodia offered this comment: “The Don Sahong Dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis. As the project is next to Cambodia’s border, have they forgotten that fish are our lifeline and the backbone of our economy? Fish are central to our diet and our main source of protein,” Mr. Chhith Sam Ath continued: “It’s irresponsible to proceed with this project without consulting downstream people or even carrying out a credible trans-boundary impact assessment. Fish are simply too precious of a resource to be squandered.” [1]

Teerapong Pomun, an active member of the Living Rivers Siam Association has forcefully expressed this criticism: “Laos is once again attempting to evade its responsibilities, while forcing the public in the whole region to pay for the immense damage that the Don Sahong Dam will cause. Laos must cancel this project, along with the other mainstream dams, before it’s too late.” [1]

From Vietnam, Ms. Nguỵ Thi Khanh, director of the Green Innovation and Development Centre, Vietnam also had this to say: “While energy can be generated via more sustainable sources, the depletion of fish and food is irreversible. The Mekong governments must find a way out of this dilemma, before regional tensions grow. We cannot let politics and unilateral decisions fail our rivers and future water and food security. Now more than ever, we need the MRC and its member countries to protect the indispensable resources that the Mekong River provides for millions of people.”

IN LIEU OF CONCLUSION

No other hydroelectric dam projects had generated so much controversy and opposition as the Don Sahong one. Considering the dam’s inconsequential output (only 260 MW) and its short lived financial gains, one is hard-pressed to explain why the Lao government had given a deaf ear to the cautions of the experts and irresponsibly turned on the “green light” to the implementation of this project at the risk of doing irreparable damages to a rich ecosystem believed to be the last remaining one in the Mekong Basin. With the construction of the Don Sahong Dam, the Khone/ Siphandone Falls will cease to be a natural wonder and lose its attractiveness as an ecotourism site that has continuously earned a significant amount of foreign exchange for the Lao economy. In addition, one cannot disregard the immediate food crisis that will result from the loss of fish supply and protein source to the majority of the Lao people who are still suffering from malnutrition.

Article 7 of the MRC 1995 Mekong Agreement for a sustainable development of the Mekong Basin states: “The contracting parties agree to make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment, especially the water quantity and quality, the aquatic eco-system conditions, and the ecological balance of the river, from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources.” This article of faith still needs to be observed by both the governments of Laos and the other Mekong countries.

NGÔ THẾ VINH
26 – 10 – 2013

REFERENCES:

  1. Fish Plunder at Stake, Laos Announces Plans to Build Don Sahong Dam. IRN, October 2, 2013
    http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/pr-fish-plunder-at-stake-laos-announces-plans-to-build-don-sahong-dam-8102
  2. Laos' Mekong dam moves stir up public discontent. Jim Pollard. The Nation, October 10, 2013
    http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Laos-Mekong-dam-moves-stir-up-public-discontent-30216687.html
  3. Laos PDR Breaks Ground for Xayaburi Dam, A Tragic Day for the Mekong River and Mekong Delta. Ngô Thế Vinh.
    http://www.vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/94
  4. The Siem Reap Meeting A Fragile Agreement [12-08-2011] for the Free Flowing of the Mekong’s Mainstream – Ngô Thế Vinh. 1/3/2012 http://www.vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/78
  5. Lao PDR submits notification on Don Sahong Hydropower Project. Vientiane, Lao PDR, 3rd Oct 2013
    http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/news/lao-pdr-submits-notification-on-don-sahong-hydropower-project/
  6. Controversial Don Sahong Dam Closer to Construction. Milton Osborne, Lowy Institute for International Policy. The Interpreter 4 October 2013
    http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/author/Milton%Osborne.aspx
  7. The Don Sahong; Potential Impacts on Regional Fish Migrations, Livelihoods, and Human Health. Ian G. Baird. Critical Asian Studies Volume 43, Issue 2, 2011 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14672715.2011.570567#.Umni5yhYmgF
  8. Officials Criticize Laos Over Don Sahong Dam. Kuch Naren and Dene-Hern Chen – The Cambodian Daily, October 26, 2013
    http://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/officials-criticize-laos-over-don-sahong-dam-44888/
  9. Where Have All the Fish Gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam. Tom Fawthrop. Video-DVD 2013
    http://the-diplomat.com/2010/10/22/the-battle-over-the-mekong/

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