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New Mekong dam fears

Pending construction of the Don Sahong hydropower dam in Laos, just a few hundred metres from the Cambodian border, could have a devastating impact on local fisheries, according to a new report, amid questions about the validity of the project’s environmental impact assessment.

The report comes amid mounting concern about other proposed hydropower projects in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region, including the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng province and the Xayaburi dam in Laos, and the effect they will have on Cambodian villagers.

The report on the Don Sahong dam appeared this week in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal Critical Asian Studies and was written by Ian Baird, a fisheries expert and professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.

Although the Don Sahong is smaller than other proposed dams in the region, set to stand between 10 and 30 metres high and to generate 240 megawatts of electricity, it is no less controversial. The dam site sits on an important channel for fish passage in the Khone Falls area of Laos’ Champasak province, less than one kilometre north of the border with Stung Treng, according to the report.

Project developer Mega First Corporation Berhad of Malaysia funded a feasibility study and environmental impact assessment for the project in July 2007 that was initially approved by the Lao government, but the lack of transparency on the project remains of concern to some observers.

The 2007 EIA did not address regional fisheries implications in neighbouring countries and instead focused solely on Laos, while a new assessment requested by the Lao government has yet to be released publicly.

A well-placed source within the environmental community who wished to remain anonymous claimed yesterday that the initial EIA in 2007, completed by a biologist from the United Kingdom, had been heavily manipulated by Mega First Corporation Berhad in order to give it a positive spin and garnerapproval from the government in Vientiane.

“[Mega First] took his report and essentially changed all of his conclusions, and he couldn’t say anything publicly about it because he was under contract and was trapped. They kept all of the non-controversial aspects and changed all of the controversial aspects – that was the original EIA for this project that the Lao government approved,” the source said.

“They had no way of knowing that the experts that were hired were not allowed to tell them the truth because the report had to be made positive by the Malaysian company.”

The source added that environmentalists based in Southeast Asia and representatives from the Mekong River Commission “whispered in the ear of the Lao government” about the alleged fabrications in the report, prompting officials to ask Mega First to conduct another EIA that has yet to be released.

Officials from the MRC declined to comment on this claim, while representatives of Mega First in Malaysia could not be reached yesterday evening.  

The source said the alleged deception in the original EIA process raised serious questions about any new assessment generated by the firm.

“Who’s to say that [Mega First] is not doing the same thing in the second report? We don’t have access, we can’t look at it, so there is no doubt the same things are happening,” the source said.

According to research from Eric Baran, a senior scientist at the World Fish Center, an estimated 87 percent of Mekong mainstream fish species are migratory. These fish stocks could be drastically affected if the Don Sahong dam blocks their migrations, Baird said in his report.

Daovong Phonekeo, deputy director of the department of electricity at Laos’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, said yesterday that the latest EIA on the proposed dam has yet to be completed because Mega First is still surveying fish migrations. Nonetheless, he said the ultimate benefits of the project would outweigh any threats to the environment.

“We think the benefits from the income from this project will be higher. We could use the funds to monitor the fishing and also improve the fish [supplies] in the area and set up to use the funds to control seasonal fishing so that the fish population can be increased,” he said. Construction on the dam, he added, is slated to begin in about two years’ time.  

“Part of the energy we will sell to Cambodia, while the main part will be used locally,” he said. “Maybe only 40 megawatts [will be sold to Cambodia] because the demand in the northern part of Cambodia is low and they are not using much power.”

Baird’s report comes amid a controversy over the proposed Lower Sesan 2 dam project in Stung Treng, which was the topic of fierce debate between villagers, environmentalists and officials from the Ministry of Environment at a forum in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

Two officials from Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment said yesterday that they were unaware of the controversy surrounding the Don Sahong project, while Prach Sun, a secretary of state at the ministry, declined to comment.

Stung Treng provincial governor Loy Sophat said yesterday that he had heard of the Don Sahong on the radio but knew no details about the project.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY

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