By Tom Fawthrop, Bangkok Post, 21/06/2009
With its picturesque waterfalls, tranquil waterways and a colony of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, the pristine beauty of the Mekong River flowing through Siphandone (Four Thousand Islands) in southern Laos is a mecca for ecotourism and an important site for international conservation.
But this unique site for biodiversity is threatened by a Malaysian project to build a hydroelectric dam across the Hou Sahong channel of the Mekong, only a few kilometres upstream - triggering a cascade of protests from environmental organisations and scientists.
If the dam goes ahead it will have a major impact on Irrawaddy dolphins and another endangered species - the giant catfish - and severely reduce the flow to the Khone Falls, one of Asia's largest waterfalls.
The consequences of this dam project could also be devastating for millions of people, according to Carl Middleton, the Mekong Program Coordinator of International Rivers, an environmental NGO.
"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," Mr Middleton concluded
The newly formed Ngo coalition "Save The Mekong" has united under one umbrella environmentalists and scientists from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. On Thursday they met with Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to lobby the government to do more to protect the Mekong from the current frenzy of dam projects.
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 Asian Development Bank (ADB) 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 nine more dam projects are planned. The massive Nam Theun 2 project, with a capacity of 1,088MW, now under construction, will supply much of the growing energy needs of the region.
A strong advocate of eco-tourism, Luesak Soumpholphakdy, who owns the Sahaphae Hotel on nearby Don Kong island said, "After Nam Theun 2 (dam) we have enough electricity [for export to Thailand]. Why do we need a Don Sahong? I am worried about the fish and the dam."
Chith Sam Sath the director of NGO Forum in Cambodia handed a statement to the PM on the economic importance of the Mekong. Fisheries experts calculate the annual commercial catch is currently worth US$3 billon (102 billion baht) a year. The campaigners also pointed out that more than 60 million people in the Lower Mekong Basin depend on the river for their food security.
The coalition has just launched a postcard campaign to "Save the Mekong", with over 7,000 Thais, 3,000 Cambodians and 600 Laotians signing their names in support and thousands more embracing the online petition.
Similar sentiments have been expressed in a petition sent to the MRC (Mekong River Commission), signed by 34 scientists from Australia, Canada and many other countries.
Thai companies are among the investors in new dam projects across the Mekong, including one in Sayaboury province and two along the Thailand-Lao border.
Premrudee Daoroung, co-director, Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (Terra) reported that the prime minister responded by arguing for a regional approach and that he wanted these Mekong issues to be resolved through such forums as the MRC, the GMS economic forum and Asean.
So far no final decision has been taken by the Lao government to start building the highly controversial Don Sahong dam. In March 2006, the LPDR (the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic) signed an agreement with Mega First Corporation Malaysia, to do a feasibility study to build a 300 megawatt dam across the Mekong's Hou Sahong channel, bordering Cambodia. A Project Development Agreement was signed in 2008.
The fisheries consultant in the EIA team (environmental impact assessment) on this dam told this correspondent, on condition of anonymity, "If this dam goes ahead, it will be an ecological disaster for fish migrations routes between Cambodia and Laos. Hundreds of species of fish would be adversely affected."
The World Fish Centre in Phnom Penh in their study concluded 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 Malaysian company Megafirst tried to address some of the EIA's critical conclusions by proposing fish-passes to mitigate the negative impacts of the dam. But the MRC-Mekong River Commission's group of experts concluded that mitigation is not a viable option in the case of the Mekong.
Another fisheries expert explained that "this dam does not only impact fishermen living in the area of the dam but far beyond the Four Thousand 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 on their food and their livelihood on fisheries". The total catch is between one and two million tonnes a year.
"Is the Lao government aware of the dangers posed to the fisheries?" the scientist wondered. "The LPDR has not made their own studies so they must rely on the information supplied by Megafirst, the company that wants to build the dam."
Certainly many Laotian fishermen are aware. Keo Boonavat from a village opposite Sahong Island told Spectrum: "The Mekong and its fish - this is our life. We love our Mekong. Can the government feed us if this dam takes away all our fish?"
Many officials in The LPDR Tourism Ministry have quietly expressed opposition to the dam because they believe it will undermine the country's huge potential for eco-tourism in Siphan Dhone - the Four Thousand Islands district of Champasak province. The LPDR is about to host its second World Ecotourism conference in July 2009. The dam 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.
Will the dam go ahead or not? One poignant message from the Save The Mekong postcards came from Viengkham Phanphavone in Vientiane. He wrote: "I believe every Lao person wants the Mekong to remain our food source. If you build dams, the Mekong will be less prosperous, and the lives that depend on the Mekong will be severely affected."
The hope of fishermen, NGOs and all those dependent on the river for their food security is that the government will recognise that the Don Sahong Dam is more likely to bring disaster than any meaningful development.