20 October 2014 | Samean Yun and Richard Finney | Radio Free Asia
A coalition of Cambodian, Thai, and U.S. nongovernmental organizations filed a petition Monday with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) calling for an investigation into the possible social and environmental impacts of a much-criticized dam being built in Laos by a Malaysian development firm.
The controversial Don Sahong Dam is being built by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhard (Mega-First) on Southeast Asia’s key artery the Mekong River just two kilometers (1.2 mile) north of Cambodia.
The project has sparked widespread concern among neighboring countries and environmentalists, who say that it will block migratory fish routes, negatively affecting nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.
“We want SUHAKAM to investigate our complaints,” said Tek Vannara, executive director of NGO Forum on Cambodia, among the petition’s signatories.
“They have promised they will consult among themselves, look into the project, and share the results with us so that we can decide on our course of action when we next speak with Mega-First,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Although SUHAKAM was set up by Malaysia’s parliament to look into human rights issues, its recommendations are not binding.
NGO representatives have also contacted Mega-First, which has already accepted petitions from the coalition, he said.
Millions may be at risk
Millions of people will be affected if work on the dam is allowed to proceed, Tek Vannara said.
“If the dam is constructed, villagers will face a decline in fish. Fish and dolphins in the Mekong River will be destroyed, and this will also affect ecotourism,” he said, adding, “Water quality will also be affected, and people will face problems with their livestock.”
Experts say the dam will entirely block the main channel of the Mekong River that provides year-round fish passage through the Khone Falls area. Mekong fish, they say, are highly migratory and the impact on fish populations could be devastating if this key channel is blocked.
“Unless the impacts on fish migrations are fully mitigated, and it is unclear if that is possible, the Don Sahong Dam can be expected to significantly reduce the number of migratory fish species that move between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand,” said Ian Baird, an expert in Southeast Asian geography and ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The petition sent on Monday by the NGO coalition said it has asked SUHAKAM to investigate Mega First “with respect to probable violations of human rights.”
All work on the project should be halted until transboundary impact assessments meeting national and international standards are conducted and the company fully informs and engages with affected communities, the petition said.
Mega-First should also establish “an independent, adequate and funded grievance mechanism through which affected persons and communities may voice concerns and have complaints remedied,” the petition added.
Work continues on dam
Lao authorities decided in June to open the 260-megawatt Don Sahong project to consultations and scrutiny among members of the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body which supervises development along the Mekong River.
The Lao government also said it would suspend construction of the project, the second dam it is building on the Mekong after the Xayaburi dam, but Mega-First said work is continuing.
Aside from the NGO Forum on Cambodia, signatories to the petition to SUHAKAM included the Cambodian Rural Development Team (Cambodia), Northeastern Rural Development (Cambodia), the Community Resource Center (Thailand), EarthRights International (USA), International Rivers (USA), and Northeastern Rural Development (Cambodia).
Noting that fisheries provide “the essential source of protein for most Mekong communities,” the NGOs filing the complaint noted in a statement on Monday that 45 percent of children living in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, where the Don Sahong Dam is expected to have “a severe impact,” are already malnourished.
Speaking to RFA, Cambodia National Mekong Committee Deputy Secretary General Koul Wathana said that the dam’s anticipated impacts on the area are still being discussed.
“The committee will gather and talk with villagers in Stung Treng province to speak about their concerns,” he said.
“The Don Sahong Project is representative of what is happening across much of Southeast Asia,” Tanja Venisnik, Mekong Legal Coordinator for EarthRights International, added in a statement Monday.
“Large scale development projects, funded and owned by foreign companies, are being developed without the participation of affected communities and in countries where domestic accountability measures are weak,” Venisnik said.
“We hope that this action will encourage Malaysian companies to take responsibility for their actions when operating abroad, and as a first step Mega-First should cancel this project.”