In its race to cash in on hydropower without first addressing its downstream implications, Laos could pitch the region into a water crisis and jeopardise millions of Cambodian’s food security, conservation groups and Cambodian government officials said yesterday.
“Lao PDR is exploiting the Mekong River to develop its country though hydropower dams,” Tea Chhup, deputy secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, said yesterday during a workshop on Laos’ Don Sahong Hydropower Project.
Surrounded by rapidly growing, energy hungry neighbours, Laos has made no secret of intentions to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” proposing nine of the 11 planned Lower Mekong mainstream dams. But environmental groups are claiming that Laos has been anything but transparent in responding to mounting concerns about its use of the shared waters.
In January, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand’s Mekong committees requested Laos halt plans for the 260-megawatt Don Sahong until studies assessing transboundary impacts assured little or reversible effects. Despite the demand, Laos announced last month that it would move forward with dam construction in December, according to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia coordinator for International Rivers.
“Under international law, it’s Laos’ duty to do these studies before building,” Trandem said. “The Mekong should never be a testing ground for new technology.”
Last September, the Don Sahong’s developers published environmental and cumulative impact studies considering localised effects of the project, and in doing so, raised more red flags than assuaged fears.
“The scope of their study is only two kilometres, but we can assume the impact of their dam will extend beyond that and across the border to Cambodia,” said Danh Serey, a Ministry of Environment representative.
The studies also came under fire for alleged inconsistencies, a lack of baseline information about fish numbers and migration patterns and unsubstantiated claims about mitigation measures.
“The impact assessment questions the ‘viability’ of the [nearby] Irrawaddy Dolphin population; what they mean is, let’s not worry about endangered dolphins, let’s just build a dam,” said Gerry Ryan, a technical officer at WWF-Greater Mekong.
For its part, the Lao government maintained no short-cuts on dam construction or study were being taken.
“Mindful of potential environmental and social impacts, the government of Laos accepts that the process of hydropower development must be thoughtful, careful and practical,” said Viraphonh Viravong, vice minister at Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines. “Modifications to a project design can be made, and will be made, to ensure sustainability and environmental safeguards not just for years, but for decades.”