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Environmental manager defends Laos dam project

An artist’s rendition of Laos’s planned Don Sahong Dam
An artist’s rendition of Laos’s planned Don Sahong Dam. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Environmental manager defends Laos dam project

Amid growing furore over the controversial Don Sahong Dam – with a proposed canal site just one kilometre north of the Cambodia-Laos border – the environmental manager behind the project said yesterday that he’s certain it will have almost no environmental footprint.

“It’s definitely a sustainable project. It’s diverting only a small portion of the Mekong’s flow,” said Peter Hawkins, an environmental manager at Mega First Corporation of Berhad, the Malaysian firm behind the dam, which would be the second of 12 lower Mekong projects to start construction.

“We have been doing a lot of research into the impact of this project, and I am confident we can mitigate all of the effects.”

That notion was met with disbelief by at least one researcher.

“The Don Sahong Dam would block the most important channel for fish migrations in the Khone Falls area,” Dr Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin Madison who has studied and written about the Mekong dams extensively, said.

In a 2011 Critical Asian Studies article, Baird said the proposed dam would cause widespread losses to fisheries, deplete the Mekong’s biodiversity and threaten Cambodia’s ability to meet its 2015 Millennium Development Goal to end widespread hunger.

“We know the dam would have a lot of electric benefits, but fish from the Mekong feed millions of people – electricity can’t replace that,” Meach Mean, a coordinator at the 3S Rivers Protection Network, said.

But Hawkins said such fears are unfounded.

“We hope our project will actually improve fisheries and fishing practices upstream and downstream of the dam,” he said. “One of the main [misconceptions] is that the Hou Sahong is the only possible canal for migratory fish to travel upstream, but there’s at least one other canal for fish and we plan to develop the other nearby passages as well.”

Though the dam’s developers have not yet secured a construction contract, earlier this month the Lao government notified the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission of its intention to support the dam.

“By simply notifying the MRC, the Lao government is attempting to bypass the MRC’s 1995 Mekong Agreement and its requirement for ‘prior consultation’,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia project coordinator for International Rivers, said.

But the MRC secretariats stood behind the government as following protocol.

“The MRC is not a supranational or regulatory body,” Federico Rodriguez, a spokesman for the MRC’s Vientiane secretariat, said. “In the Don Sahong hydropower project’s case, by submitting the notification, Lao PDR has acted consistent with the provisions of the [Prior Consultation and Agreement] and the Mekong Agreement.”

Don Sahong developers are confident the official contract to build will soon be signed and construction under way.

In July 2012, another lightning rod Lao project, the Xayaburi dam, was halted following intense pressure from international groups and Cambodian authorities to conduct further impact studies.

When contacted yesterday about the Don Sahong, officials at the Cambodian National Mekong Committee and Water Resources Ministry refused to comment.

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