Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Lao dams muddying the waters



Lao dams muddying the waters

Lao dams muddying the waters

Environmentalists say regional forums have proven themselves inadequate

to address the cross-border impacts of a slew of hydropower dam

projects planned for southern Laos

Photo by:
SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

Construction of the Kamchay hydropower dam in Kampot province continues in this file photo. NGOs say dam projects in southern Laos will impact on Cambodians while delivering few of benefits.

ASPATE of new hydropower projects slated for construction in southern Laos could wreak havoc downstream in Cambodia, according to environmental groups, but international agreements governing the sustainable development of the Mekong River basin lack the capacity to address the trans-boundary impacts of the dams.

Six large dams are already under construction in Laos, with a further 12 at an advanced stage of planning, part of a long-term Lao government strategy to turn the country into the "battery of Asia" by exporting hydroelectricity to power-starved Thailand and Vietnam.

But some NGOs are concerned that Cambodia may be shouldering the social and environmental burdens of the projects while sharing few - if any - of the economic benefits.

Power Surge: The Impacts of Rapid Dam Development in Laos, a report released by International Rivers in September, argues that projects earmarked for the deep valleys of southern Laos are unsustainable and will have far-reaching effects across the border in Cambodia.

According to the report, the projects planned "will cause irreparable social, environmental and economic losses" that will "likely far outweigh any revenue or electricity benefits they would provide".

The report argues that the 600mw Sekong 4 dam, planned for the Sekong River, a key Mekong tributary (see map), could lead to "declines in aquatic resources in Laos and downstream areas of Cambodia, and even as far away as the mainstream Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam".

It also highlights problems with the planned Don Sahong (240-360mw) project, which will be situated on the Mekong mainstream near Khone Falls on the Lao border.

"The Don Sahong project would block the main channel that is passable by migratory fish year round in the Khone Falls area ... with devastating consequences for fisheries and fishery-based livelihoods ... throughout the wider Mekong region," the report states.

"Approval of the Don Sahong dam would set a dangerous precedent for the seven other risky projects under consideration for the lower Mekong mainstream."

Lack of notification

Photo by:

MEKONG RIVER COMMISSION

A map showing the hydropower dams that are planned or already built on the southern Laos Mekong sub-basin, which experts expect to have downstream effects in Cambodia.

LAO DAMS Impacts

  • Don Sahong: Blocking of fish migration channels; severe fisheries impacts for Laos, Cambodia and region; no consultations in Cambodia.
  • Sekong 4: Losses of fisheries estimated at US$6.25 million annually in Laos; no assessment of impacts in Cambodia.
  • Sekong 5: Exacerbation of fisheries losses and water quality problems caused by downstream Sekong 4 project.
  • Nam Kong 1: Declines in water quality; loss of fisheries in Laos and Cambodia.

SOURCE: INTERNATIONAL RIVERS

Despite the likely effects of the Lao dams, some claim that there has been little coordination between the two governments over the issue of trans-boundary impacts.

"[Don Sahong] will have a very negative impact on fisheries in Cambodia and Laos. But the Cambodian government said that they have not heard anything from the Lao government," said Ngy San, deputy executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia.

"In my opinion, the decision on the hydropower dams has not been consultative. It rests on a small group of people."

The Power Surge report found that even where environmental impact studies have been commissioned by the Lao government, they have ignored trans-boundary impacts.

"There have been insufficient cross-border investigations and dialogue about the dams, and no fieldwork or investigations have taken place in Cambodia," it said.

Kim Sangha, coordinator of the Sesan-Srepok-Sekong (3S) Protection Network in Ratanakkiri province, said Vietnam's Yali Falls dam on the Sesan river, which has affected local communities since its construction in 1993, illustrated the importance of transparency in the planning of dam developments.

"All the dams in Vietnam have lacked good designs, and there was a lack consultation with all the stakeholders in the region [and] between the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia," he said.

"If [the Laotians] don't learn from the Sesan cases, there will be serious impacts."

Sustainable development?

The coordination of regional hydropower development and the resolution of trans-boundary disputes is ostensibly handled by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), of which Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are members.

The Mekong Agreement, which established the commission in 1995, pledges the four governments to "promote in a constructive and mutually beneficial manner the sustainable development, utilisation, conservation and management of the Mekong River Basin".

However, scientists and environmental activists contacted by the Post said the commission lacked the political will to foster international dialogue about the social and environmental effects of dam developments.

"The MRC doesn't have enough capacity to force governments to apply best practices or international standards," said Kim Sangha.

"In reality, the MRC is ineffective in terms of cultivating development partners in the region, including NGOs, governments and donors."

Carl Middleton, Mekong program coordinator for International Rivers, said that national interests often short-circuited the commission's ability to pursue sustainability goals.

"The MRC's ability to enforce the 1995 agreement is based on the willingness of the four member governments to respect the provisions of the agreement," he said.

"There appears to be no reasoned river basin planning process taking place at either the national or regional level," he added.

Ngy San agreed that the divergence between the commission's goals and those of its member states created unavoidable contradictions.

"The reality is that the forming of the MRC was just a way for separate countries to look out for their own interests, rather than that of the Greater Mekong region," he said.

The MRC doesn't have enough capacity to force governments to apply international standards.

"There should be a strong mechanism to implement the agreement since each of the countries have different perceptions of what [it] means."

Another issue is that the Mekong Agreement's stipulations do not apply as forcefully to the river's tributaries, where many of the Lao dam projects are planned.

"On major tributaries ...  where trans-boundary impacts have already occurred from hydropower projects built in Vietnam, the MRC system has proved itself inadequate to negotiate redress for downstream affected communities in Cambodia," Middleton said.

He added that the Don Sahong dam, as the first dam project planned for the lower reaches of the Mekong mainstream, will be a key test of the commission's commitment to sustainable development.

However, Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC), said the 1995 agreement had been strengthened by efforts to encourage regional cooperation - including dialogue with non-MRC members Myanmar and China - and improved implementation of its aims.

"We have many programs in place to solve problems and share the benefits of the development of these potential resources," he said.

He cited the commission's data and information sharing procedures, which aim to "promote understanding and cooperation among the MRC member countries", and the consultative meeting held in Vientiane in September, as indications that the commission welcomes input on the impacts of dam developments.

Pich Dun said the Cambodians had entered into dialogue with the Lao government over its plans, but added that information on some projects could not be provided until feasibility studies had been completed.

"Our government - based on consultations with the Lao government and with various stakeholders and NGOs - is very worried about the development of hydropower on the [Mekong] mainstream and in other parts of Laos," he said.

"So far, they have provided information on these development projects, [and] they have sent a list of their projects to the CNMC," he said, adding that no formal talks over the projects have been started yet.

He added that the Don Sahong dam was a particular concern, but that negotiations  would begin once the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment of the project had been completed.

While recognising the commission's efforts, environmentalists said the four member states should go further to ensure development is balanced against its social and ecological costs.

"There is an urgent need to prioritise projects through a process that is accountable to the public," Middleton said.

"This process would differentiate between projects where benefits outweigh the costs ... and projects where the costs are too great and should

be left aside."

But Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L Stimson Centre in Washington, DC, said the regional forum of the MRC would likely take a back seat to face-to-face negotiations.

"My own guess is that they ultimately will address these issues bilaterally," he said, adding that he expected China to act as a broker between Cambodia and Laos - a better solution, ultimately, than none at all.

"The Mekong Delta will likely suffer the greatest impact if these projects go ahead. I'm pretty sure that not all of them will, but it only takes a couple to kill the fisheries," he said.

MOST VIEWED

  • Would you like fries with that? US burger chain makes Phnom Penh debut

    California-based The Habit Burger Grill restaurant chain is all set to serve up a delicious array of charbroiled burgers and sides at its newest international location in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Habit is “renowned for its award-winning Charburgers grilled over an open flame,

  • Banteay Meanchey flood victims receive aid

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday provided aid to more than 10,000 families affected by flooding in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district and offered his condolences to the 18 victims who drowned in the province over the past week. He said flooding had occured in

  • PM urges caution as Polish man tests positive for Covid

    The Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported that a 47-year-old Polish man tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Cambodia on Monday. There are a total of six Covid-19 patients currently in the country, all of whom are being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

  • Banteay Meanchey floods kill one more as death toll reaches 15

    As floodwaters start to recede in Pursat, Battambang and Pailin provinces and Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey continues to bear the brunt as one more person was killed on Monday, bringing the total number of flood-related deaths to 15 in the province this month. Banteay Meanchey provincial

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from

  • Floods prompt evacuations in Kampong Speu

    Rain-induced floods and water flowing from Kampong Speu province have submerged the houses of 1,527 families living close to the Prek Thnot River in Spean Thma, Tien, Kong Noy and Roluos communes in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, according to data from local authorities. Spean Thma