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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Lao dam breaks ground

Lao dam breaks ground

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Xayaburi dam construction site in northern Laos. Photograph: Phnom Penh Post

A waterfall has been blasted less than two kilometres from the Cambodian-Lao border, beginning work on another unapproved hydroelectric dam on the Mekong river, environmental group International Rivers claimed yesterday.

Pianporn Deetes, the Thailand campaign coordinator for International Rivers, said she had learned of the excavation work, near Khone Falls, the largest in South East Asia, during a recent visit to Champasak province, where the Lao government proposes to build the Don Sahong hydroelectric dam.

“Villagers reported that the dam builders have already blasted a waterfall near the [dam] site,” she said, adding this happened late last year. “Lao officials have told the villagers that they will not be allowed to fish with Ly fishing gear [large bamboo traps] in the area beginning in 2014.”

Currently, fish are able to migrate downstream through Laos and into Cambodia through the 50- to 100-metre-wide Hou Sahong channel year-round; however, the Lao government will block this migration avenue, diverting fish through an alternative five metre-wide passage where the blasted waterfall had been.

“The dam’s construction, and the end of Ly fishing, is a major concern because local people depend so heavily on fishing for their livelihoods,” Deetes said.

Although much less powerful than the proposed 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi dam in northern Laos, Don Sahong, which could have a capacity of 380 megawatts, would also threaten Cambodian fishing communities downstream because of its potential to block the Hou Sahong channel, the only section of the Mekong that fish pass through during the dry season, IR said.

The Malaysian company Mega First Corporation is contracted to build Don Sahong, but fellow Mekong River Commission states Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand have not agreed to the project – a requirement under a 1995 pact.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for IR, said the Don Sahong dam would be disastrous for the Mekong river’s fisheries: “Like the Xayaburi dam, the impacts would be trans-boundary.”

Villagers living near the Don Sahong dam site had reported that Mega First had blasted the waterfall in order to create a small fish passage, she said.

“The Lao government should immediately clarify the current status of the Don Sahong dam and provide an update on the channel excavation work that has occurred in the Khone Falls,” Trandem said.

When contacted yesterday, a Mega First Corporation employee who declined to give his name said construction of the dam was a long way off.

“We have definitely not begun building this dam,” he said. “We haven’t even appointed a contractor.”

The company had not undertaken any work at the site and still needed approval for the project from the MRC, he said. “There will be nothing until the end of next year.”

Trandem said she was concerned the Lao government would say work at the site was “preparatory”, as it had with work at the unapproved Xayaburi dam.

Cambodian National Mekong Committee secretary-general Te Navuth said he was shocked to hear of work at the Don Sahong site.

“We understand this project is one of 11 planned on the [Mekong’s] main stream . . . but I am surprised to hear this name mentioned now,” he said, adding that he had received no recent information about it.

The Lao ministries of foreign affairs and water resources and environment could not be reached for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com

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