A visiting Laotian senior official yesterday moved to allay concerns over the Don Sahong hydropower dam, expected to begin construction within months, though Cambodia again insisted further studies on the project’s environmental impact were needed.
In a bilateral meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh, Laos’s Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong discussed the controversial 260 megawatt plant, slated to be built about 2 kilometres north of the Kingdom’s border.
According to Namhong, Lengsavad cited studies which found the dam would have “no environmental impact”.
In response, Namhong said he pushed for more research into fish migration and water flow, noting millions of people’s lives depend on the Mekong and Tonle Sap.
However, the foreign minister also said that he acknowledged Laos’s “sovereign right” to begin construction before the end of the year, as per its announcement last month.
“I explained to Somsavat that the Tonle Sap is the lifeblood of the Cambodian people,” Namhong said.
“The water from the Mekong flows into the Tonle Sap, and within that period, the fish spawn eggs. When the water flows back down the Mekong, it is the period for catching fish.”
Namhong even personalised the issue.
“Prahok from the Tonle Sap is a priority food for Cambodians; it’s even my food every evening. I need to have a plate of prahok,” he said, referring to the commonly eaten fish-paste dish.
Environmental groups argue the hydro-plant – to be built by Malaysian developer MegaFirst – will harm the Mekong’s hydrology and ecology, including the endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin population in Stung Treng province.
During the project’s consultation period last year, conducted through the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam all called on Laos to halt construction to allow further research.
In September – after its parliament approved the project – the Laotian government released a 22-page document titled Don Sahong made simple, addressing concerns surrounding the project.
The paper says work to improve other channels – including widening sections, removing fish traps, flattening waterfalls and cascades – would mitigate the impact on fish migration through the Hou Sahong channel, where work has already begun on access roads for the facility.
But International Rivers Southeast Asia program director Ame Trandem said yesterday that Laos had attempted to “green wash” the project.
She urged construction be pushed back by two years to allow for the necessary research, including more baseline data collection and a transboundary environmental impact assessment.
“Any decisions 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.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHAUN TURTON