WWF’s decision to not participate in the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) Prior Consultation Process on the Don Sahong dam has come under question recently, so WWF would like to explain why we and many others oppose this dam, and more importantly, why we do not endorse a process in which the outcome was decided in advance.
The 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam is one of 12 hydropower projects currently being planned for the lower stretches of the Mekong. It is proposed by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad on a site about 2 kilometres from the Lao-Cambodian border in Laos’s Champassak province. The dam will block the Hou Sahong Channel, the main channel available for dry-season fish migrations on the Mekong River, putting the world’s largest inland fishery at risk.
The dam builders intend to excavate millions of tonnes of rock using explosives, creating strong sound waves that could create grave, potentially lethal threats to the only dolphin population in Laos. These dolphins have highly sensitive hearing structures.
There is a lack of independent, science-based and trans-boundary ecosystem impact assessments for the dam. Currently, the only Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was commissioned by Mega First, and its review by the MRC’s technical expert team led Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to request further studies. The mitigation measures for fish passage in the EIA report were assessed by international fish passage experts at the request of NGOs. They concluded that the studies are not up to international standards, and that fish passage solutions have not been demonstrated.
WWF is concerned the Don Sahong dam will follow the precedent of another dam in Laos, the Xayaburi hydropower project. Xayaburi was the first Lower Mekong mainstream dam submitted to the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement process, in 2012. In that instance, the four countries failed to reach consensus, yet the project is moving ahead rapidly, ignoring the advice of downstream countries. Since then, a series of peer-reviewed scientific papers found its impact on the sediment flows in Cambodia and Vietnam will be rapid and serious.
Given that there was no clear indication from the MRC of the scope of the Don Sahong dam consultation process, and that statements were made prior to the consultation that the dam would be constructed anyway, WWF decided not to participate in the MRC consultation process. Doing so would have placed a seal of approval on a failed process that could prove disastrous to food security, livelihoods and one of the world’s last remaining populations of Irrawaddy dolphins.
WWF did not take this decision lightly, as we believe in constructive solutions to environmental problems that provide benefits for people and nature. Prior to making this decision, we requested clarity on the process, but no answers were provided. In addition, we have received no answers about why the alternative Thako water diversion project has been ignored in favour of heavy promotion of Don Sahong. Studies have proved that the Thako project, located at the falls, would provide as much power as the Don Sahong project, for a cheaper price and with a much smaller negative environmental impact.
WWF is not alone in sharing concerns about the dam. In September, more than a quarter million people signed a petition asking Mega First to suspend construction. Those individuals join numerous civil society organisations and MRC member countries that have called for more transparency and independent scientific assessments of the dam.
WWF believes that to restore the credibility of the MRC process, construction of the Don Sahong dam should be suspended until all project documents and further impact assessments have satisfied the science-based concerns of stakeholders, including MRC governments, civil society and local communities of the Lower Mekong region.
The Prior Consultation Process should have clearly identified and agreed upon objectives and criteria, and it should not be concluded until additional independent, transboundary impact assessments are conducted. Also, the conclusions of the Delta Study – led by Vietnam and to be completed in December 2015 – should contribute to the Don Sahong prior consultation. Finally, the Thako water diversion project should be revisited as an alternative to Don Sahong that will produce the same amount of electricity with much less impact on ecosystems and livelihoods.
The countries of the Mekong have a clear challenge ahead of them – restore the credibility of the MRC process and respect internationally accepted dam development standards, or leave the fate of the river in the hands of irresponsible corporates. To ignore this risks irreversible damage to the region’s food security and unique freshwater biodiversity.
WWF Greater Mekong Programme
Send letters to: [email protected]. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.