Saturday, April 4, 2009

Quietly, Worried Villagers Debate Dam Impact

VIENTIANE, April 2009 (IPS) - On the banks of a remote section of the Mekong River in southern Laos, an area known as Siphandone, villagers quietly debate the question, which is more important to Laos: fisheries or building dams?

The debate has been going on ever since a proposal by the Lao government to construct a hydropower dam on this section of the Mekong mainstream, which could have serious impacts on fish stocks that have fed local families for centuries.

It is part of a larger debate underway in the countries through which the Mekong River flows by, about the wisdom of building dams in the mainstream stretches of the river, which flows for 4,880 kilometres from its headwaters in Tibet, then through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The location of the proposed dam is known as Khone Falls, Siphandone in Champasak province where the Mekong River forms a complex network of narrow channels, or ‘hoo' in Lao, at the point at which it flows into Cambodia.

The proposed dam will block Hoo Sahong, the deepest channel on that section of the river and where only few migratory fish can easily pass through at the peak of the dry season, April to May, when the water level of the Mekong is at its lowest.In truth, local people did not intend to offend the government or be misunderstood as being against the construction of the dam, said a fisherman from the Done Sadam village near the proposed dam site, who asked to be called Khampao.

But they fear the impacts it might have on the fisheries sector.The villagers living in the area where the dam will be constructed wonder how it will change their fortunes, particularly if the project blocks traditional fish migration routes.

According to the local authorities in southern Laos, nearly 2,500 people from four villages earn their living directly from fishing in the Hoo Sahong channel.”Our people are not aggressive and we have a tradition of not being against the government's development policies,” said Khamphao. ”We are not against the construction of the dam, but we want the government to study its impacts on our fish stocks. Otherwise the project will only make our lives poorer.”

Another fisherman from the area said fish were very important for the survival of his family and that without fish he would find it difficult to support his household.Khamphao said the money he used to build his house came from selling fish. ”Last year, I earned about 30,000 million kip by selling two tones of fish caught in the Hoo Sahong channel,” he said.Local people say the number of fish in local waters had been declining over the past decade due to the growing population and an increase in commercial fishing.

The Lao government signed an agreement in March 2006 granting the Malaysian engineering firm Mega First Corp. Berhad the exclusive mandate to carry out a feasibility study of the Don Sahong project.In February 2008, the company signed a project development agreement with Vientiane to push ahead with the scheme on a build-own-operate basis.

In a statement to the Malaysian stock exchange, the company said the dam, located in Champasak two kilometers from the Lao border with Cambodia, would be a ”run-of-river” facility with the capacity to generate between 240 and 360 megawatts of electricity to be used within Laos as well as being sold to neighbouring countries.

Villagers believe the problems relating to the dam have occurred as a result of a flawed decision-making process on the part of the government in which public consultation standards were not met.Public opinion has had no place in the decision-making process to this point and most decisions about the dam have been made by a small group of senior leaders in Champasak province and Vientiane.

Community consultation has been rushed, leaving the people of Siphandone feeling ignored by the dam construction company.Despite reports earlier this year that the Lao government had put the project on hold, the Don Sahong dam project appears to be going forward.

This is despite protests from technical officials who have said the project would severely impact the fishery sector, not only in Siphadone, but also upstream in the Lao provinces of Champasak and Savannakhet.

The project, potentially be the first dam on the mainstream of the Mekong River, has generated major concern internationally as well as in Laos' neighbour, Cambodia.Non-government organisations in Cambodia have requested the Lao government abandon the project due to fears of its adverse impact on fishery sector, including on the dwindling numbers of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, for which the Siphandone area is a major feeding ground.

The World Fish Centre, an international non-government organisation based in Phnom Penh that carries out fisheries related research, has reported the dam could effectively block dry-season fish movement between the lower Mekong plains and the upstream Mekong Basin.

The head of the environmental and social impact assessment division of the Lao Water Resource and Environment Authority, Bounkham Vorachit, said they had received the results of the feasibility study of the dam conducted by the company, but had yet to issue a final approval of the study.

She said the Don Sahong dam would not cause large-scale flooding, as it would be a run-of-river project.According to the Lao government, about 14 families, 80 people in total, will need to be relocated if the dam is built.Vorachit said she found many parts of the feasibility study to be quite clear, and that only the information related to the potential impact on fisheries was unclear. ”We have told the developers to study in more detail the migration of fish and what types of fish migrate to this area.”She said dam building had both negative and positive impacts.

But the important thing was to mitigate these impacts, so the construction of the dam will affect poor people's livelihoods as little as possible, she explained. ”These people rely on fish to feed their families,” Vorachit said.”If we believe the dam has more negative impacts than positive ones, our division will not approve it,” she assured.

In a recent interview with the Lao media, the deputy director of the energy department of the Lao Ministry of Mines and Energy, Khamchan Phalayok said progress on the Don Sahong project had been slow in recent months due to the global financial downturn.

Khamchan said that Thailand, as the main export market of the electricity produced in Lao dams, had yet to make any decision to buy electricity generated by the Don Sahong project. He added that banks were reluctant to offer loans for the project as well.

Laos has long desired to become the ‘battery' of South-east Asia by exporting electricity to the region, but its goal may be an unreachable dream as its neighbours are also rapidly developing their electricity production capacity.Since early 2006, the Lao government has granted permission to Thai, Malaysian and Chinese companies to conduct feasibility studies for several hydropower dams on the mainstream of the lower Mekong, including the Don Sahong project.