A delegation of Lao officials will visit two neighboring countries to inform them about the commencement of construction work on a controversial 260-megawatt hydropower dam on the Mekong River, a Lao official with knowledge of the issue said Wednesday.
Three lower Mekong countries – Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – as well as environmental groups, have expressed concern about the Don Sahong dam’s impact on the environment, movement of fish and water quality and flow.
The project has yet to be approved by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body made up of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that supervises development along Southeast Asia’s main waterway.
Lao Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad led a delegation to Cambodia on Tuesday to meet with Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong in the capital Phnom Penh, said Daovong Phonekeo, director general of the Energy Policy and Planning Department at the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines.
The Lao delegation will visit government officials in Vietnam and Thailand, he told RFA’s Laos Service on Wednesday.
“We used to talk about the dam often, so it’s not a new issue,” he said. “We are just informing them [neighboring countries] that we will begin construction. As a formality, we must inform them of this. We have already informed the Cambodian side about the construction, and they support it.”
On Oct. 6, Hor Namhong called on Laos to conduct further studies on the environmental impact of the dam during a meeting with Somsavat, who oversees economic affairs in Laos.
The dam, which will be built by Malaysian developer MegaFirst Corporation Berhad, is located two kilometers (1.2 miles) upstream from the border with Cambodia, whose Tonle Sap River depends on water from the Mekong.
NGOs push for postponement
Conservation groups have been urging the Lao government to postpone the construction of the Don Sahong dam, arguing that it will block migratory fish routes, destroy endangered ecosystems, and threaten nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director of International Rivers, told RFA that Cambodia’s position on the Don Sahong Dam is that more studies are urgently needed and that the project should fully comply with the terms of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
Signed by the four nations that make up the MRC, the agreement established a protocol, referred to as prior consultations, to promote cooperation in the sustainable management of the Mekong basis’s water resources and avoid regional disputes. However, the prior consultation is not a process for seeking approval for a proposed project.
The MRC began a six-month prior consultation for the Don Sahong dam project in July 2014, but the body’s members decided that that the process should be undertaken at the governmental level because they could not reach a common conclusion on how to proceed with the project.
“In its January 2015 reply form to the MRC, the Cambodian government requested that more baseline data and a trans-boundary environmental impact assessment be carried out prior to project implementation,” Trandem said.
“Realistically, if the studies are going to take place with the intention that they will be credible, serve to inform the design, and help to improve the project’s mitigation measures, more time will be needed.”
Yet, Laos has not given any indication that it is willing to postpone the construction start date before the end of the year or respond to neighboring countries’ concerns, Trandem said.
“If Laos is willing to work with neighboring countries in good faith, then the construction start date would be delayed by at least two years to allow sufficient time to carry out these studies and ensure due diligence,” she said.
“However, carrying out further studies alone does not negate the fact that any decision on how to proceed with the Don Sahong Dam should be based on regional agreement from all four Mekong governments and their people,” she said.
Other international nongovernmental organizations have expressed alarm about the building of the Don Sahong – the second dam proposed for construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream.
Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has called the dam “an ecological time bomb” because it will threaten the existence of the endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin species and fishery resources on which millions of Cambodians and Vietnamese depend for their survival.
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