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Dam plan threatens fisheries

Dam plan threatens fisheries

Food security could be at risk from Laos to the Mekong delta.

HUNDREDS of thousands of Cambodians could go hungry if plans for a 30-metre hydroeletric dam on the Mekong River are given the go-ahead, a coalition of international scientists has warned in an open letter.

The Don Sahong Hydropower Project, due to be built less than a kilometre from the Cambodia-Laos border, could devastate the population of domestic migratory fish and compromise the food security of people throughout the region, the experts said in the letter distributed Thursday.

Located in Laos's Champasak province, the project would affect parts of Cambodia already grappling with poor nutrition, says the team of scientists, fisheries specialists, nutritionists and development workers from around the world. The letter is a direct response to a report examining the potential hazards of the project that was released last week.

"If the dam goes forward, the corresponding drop in nutritional status for Lao and Cambodian citizens could result in setbacks in government and international donor efforts to alleviate poverty and meet various health-related United Nations Millennium Development Goals," the letter reads.

Tom Evans, deputy director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia Programme, said on Thursday that he and the other signatories hoped to raise awareness of the dam's potential hazards among as many "decision makers" as possible, but he did not know whether it would be sent to specific officials.

The effects of the dam in Cambodia could be particularly severe, he said.

"A lot of the fish that are caught in Cambodia move to other parts of the Mekong Basin to breed or feed," he said.

"The evidence suggests that when those migrations are interrupted, the populations decline, which means less food for people along the riverbanks, and that may include fisheries as far away as the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong Delta, depending on the species."

The report, produced by Ian Baird and titled "The Don Sahong Dam: Potential Impacts on Regional Fish Migrations, Livelihoods and Human Health", highlights how the dam might affect northeastern Cambodia, notably Stung Treng province. Citing provincial government statistics indicating that 44.8 percent of children under 5 are underweight, the report states: "As people are already not consuming enough animal protein, a further reduction of fish without replacement protein could lead to serious increases in nutritional problems."

Mitigating factors
The report acknowledges that the Malaysia-based Mega First Corporation Berhad - the company behind the dam - has put forth proposals for mitigating the effects of the project, but argues that "nobody really knows enough about the migratory requirements of the various species involved to be able to say with any certainty what the result of various mitigating measures might be".

The report also states that some proposals, notably the use of fish ladders, have poor track records.

Evans echoed the report's scepticism: "It seems unlikely to me that we understand those species or the design that's needed sufficiently to make that work," he said. "Fish passes often fail, even in well-known, well-studied parts of the world. In Laos it would be even harder."

Mega First could not be reached for comment.

A draft environmental impact statement has been prepared, but Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said he had not yet received it. He said Cambodian officials were eager to research the potential effects of the dam. "We are concerned about losing fish, and we would like Laos to send us the information officially so we can study the impacts," he said.

Nao Thuok, director of the Fisheries Administration, said Thursday that he had not seen the Baird report, though he said the government was concerned about any dam project slated for the Mekong River.

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