Mekong watchers warn of dam burdens without benefits
A Lao worker watches over the Nam Theun 2 hydropower site on the Nam Theun river, a Mekong tributary whose flow could have an impact on Cambodia if it alters Mekong water levels when it starts operations in 2009.
Planned hydroelectric projects in southern Laos could wreak long-term havoc downstream in Cambodia if proper steps are not taken to alleviate environmental effects, warn local advocacy groups who are calling on the government to engage Laos in a discussion of the possible cross-border impacts of its dam-building programs.
A number of projects in the Sekong River basin, a key Mekong tributary, have been planned as part of a long-term Lao government strategy to raise revenues by exporting electricity to power-starved Thailand and Vietnam.
“We need the government to play a role in exploring what impacts are being generated by hydropower projects in Laos,” said Ngy San, deputy executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia.
“It is very hard for the Cambodian government, based on current resources and capacity, but if there’s some commitment on the issue, it would be appropriate to start a dialogue with the Lao government.”
The NGO Forum viewed the Nam Kong 1 and Se Kong 4 dams, both being built by Russia’s Regional Oil Co and expected to begin construction this year, as of particular concern, Ngy San said.
Vientiane Times quoted former Russian ambassador Yuri A. Raikov last December as saying that “these projects [will] contribute to socio-economic development and help improve transport infrastructure and living conditions for the people of Laos.”
Environmental groups, however, are concerned that Cambodia may end up shouldering the environmental burdens of the dams while enjoying few, if any, of the economic benefits.
Even the Initial Environmental Examinations (IEEs) for the Nam Kong 1 and Sekong 4 projects, produced by the Norwegian consultancy Norconsult for the Lao government in 2007, admitted the likelihood of downstream problems.
The reports warn of negative effects stretching along the Sekong from the Lao border to Stung Treng town.
The Sekong 4 IEE warns that “the reservoir will change the hydrology of the river significantly both upstream and downstream,” with “the release of poor quality water from the reservoir [having] an effect upon the aquatic flora and fauna in the first stretches of the river below the dam, tending to reduce both diversity and populations.”
A forthcoming report by Rivers International goes further, criticizing the IEE for not focusing sufficiently on the effects on fisheries on the Cambodian side.
There is no mechanism through the Mekong River Commission that requires Laos to
inform Cambodia of these impacts or by which Cambodia can demand that such
impacts be prevented.
– Rivers International
The report predicts “heavy downstream fisheries losses, amounting to an estimated $18.7 million per year and affecting hundreds of thousands of people [and] leading to a loss of approximately 71 percent of the total fish catch.” It points out that these estimates have “likely been underestimated.”
Rivers International is also concerned with the apparent lack of dialogue between the Lao and Cambodian governments.
“There is no mechanism through the Mekong River Commission that requires Laos to inform Cambodia of these impacts or by which Cambodia can demand that such impacts be prevented, mitigated, or put to an end,” Rivers International says in a forthcoming report.
Ngy San also noted that the process of producing environmental assessments prior to dam construction, a requirement under Lao law, has been marked by a lack of transparency.
“Will we get the environmental impact assessment submitted to the Lao government? There should be transparency [but] the information is not here,” Ngy San said. “We have tried to obtain information but all the information to date is unofficial.”
Cambodia National Mekong Committee secretary general Pich Dun said the potential negative effects of the dam projects have been greatly exaggerated.
“I do not know about any serious downstream effects on Cambodia. We have not had any complaints from the local villagers,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, the negative effects on fisheries but said “both Cambodia and Laos will try to encourage proper cooperation in the resolving this issue.”
Bun Hean, chairman on the Standing Committee on Dams and Canals along the border of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, also disavowed any knowledge of serious effects stemming from hydropower developments on the Sekong.