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Mekong could be in danger

Report calls dam to be built in Kratie a threat to food security.

A MASSIVE dam slated to be built on the Mekong River in Kratie province is one of two projects that pose an even greater threat to human and food security and livelihoods than similar projects in China, according to a new report that calls for a moratorium on dams along the river.

The report, released Wednesday afternoon in Washington by the Henry L Stimson Centre, a nonpartisan think tank promoting international peace and security, raises an alarm about the US$5 billion Sambor Rapids dam as well as the US$300 million Don Sahong dam project in Laos, even as, in the aftermath of this week’s Mekong River Commission summit, international attention has been focused on the potential harm caused to the river by Chinese-built dams.

“These two dams, more than others planned further north, threaten critical migratory paths for 70 percent of the most commercially valuable species of wild fish,” states the report, titled Mekong Tipping Point: Hydropower Dams, Human Security and Regional Stability.

Richard Cronin, the report’s lead author and a senior associate and director of the Stimson Centre’s Southeast Asia programme, raised similar concerns about the Sambor Rapids project during testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in February, saying it would “create a total barrier to the spawning migration” of fish that travel through the Hou Sahong channel in the Khone Falls area of southern Laos.

In a prepared statement, Cronin said the Hou Sahong channel is “the only one of 18 channels that allows unimpeded year-round spawning migration by hundreds of fish species that are worth as much as $9 billion or more annually, and which supply up to 80 percent of the animal protein of as many as 60 million people”.

Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for the International Rivers organisation, emphasised similar points on Wednesday, saying: “The Don Sahong and Sambor dams would block the major fish migrations that provide food security and livelihoods for millions of people who live alongside the Tonle Sap Lake and Mekong River.”

According to International Rivers, the Cambodian government in 2006 granted permission for the China Southern Power Grid Company to prepare a feasibility study for the dam, which it states will have a capacity of 3,300 megawatts and be completed by 2030 at the earliest. About 70 percent of the electricity generated by the dam is expected to be exported to Vietnam.

In comparison, the Don Sahong project, to be developed in southern Laos by the Malaysian company MegaFirst Corporation Berhad, is expected to be completed by 2015 and generate between 240 and 360MW, much of which is expected to go to Thailand.

Call for moratorium
The report says that Mekong River Commission countries – Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – should impose a moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong and on tributaries that are important for fish reproduction.

That moratorium, it states, should remain in effect until standards are established for environmental and socioeconomic impact studies and cost-benefit analyses of dam proposals, as well as for plans to cope with threats to livelihoods resulting from the projects.

Along with eight dams planned for China’s Yunnan province, the report says, as many as 13 dams planned on the Lower Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia would “have an incalculable impact on human and food security and livelihoods in the whole Mekong Basin”.

“Incredibly,” it says, “there is no evidence that any country planning to build mainstream dams has made any provisions for alternative livelihoods or new sources of food security.”

Though the harmful effects of the dams – particularly with respect to wild fish stocks – are likely to materialise quickly, the development of alternative employment options will take years, the report states.

In both Laos and Cambodia, it says, power generated by downstream dams will likely aid the industrialisation of Thailand, while Laotians and Cambodians will be forced to either work across the border or find new ways to earn a living.

“These projects also pose a direct threat to the hard earned peace and stability of the Mekong Region and mainland Southeast Asia,” the report states.

Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Commission, on Wednesday rejected the idea that the dam projects could lead to regional tension.

“It’s impossible to have any conflicts between the countries in the Mekong region,” he said. “The MRC members have the right to develop dams, but in this regard there should be discussions before any building can take place.”

He also said he was not concerned that the Sambor Rapids dam or any other proposed projects for the Lower Mekong would result in undue hardship for those who depend on the river for survival.

“Whenever there is development there will be some damage.... We’ll need to discuss how to minimise the effect,” he said.

Asked about plans to mitigate the effects of the Sambor Rapids project, he said he could not comment on them in detail because he had not seen “the technical documents of the plan”.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY WILL BAXTER AND THARUM BUN

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