To the Friends of the Mekong
& VN 2020 Mekong Group
The contracting parties agree to “make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment, especially the water quantity and quality, the aquatic eco-system conditions, and the ecological balance of the river, from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources.” Article 7 of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, MRC.
“The Mekong River is being threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustainable use of water and the effects of climate change…But without good and careful management of the Mekong River as well as its natural resources, this great river will not survive.” P.M. Abhisit Vejjajiva, MRC Summit 2010 Hua Hin, Thailand.
UPSURGE OF HYDROPOWER PRODUCTION IN THE LOWER MEKONG
The exploitation of hydroelectricity does not occur only on the Lancang, the name of the Mekong flowing within Chinese territory. It also is going through an upsurge in the Lower Mekong. Laos has an area not much larger than the state of Utah in America and a population of approximately 6.5 million – smaller than that of Saigon, Vietnam. In this tiny country alone, there are at least 77 projects to build dams on the tributaries or main current of the Mekong. Those projects are either in operation, under construction or under evaluation. The lion’s share of the power output of “Lane Xang – the land of a million elephants” is hailed as a foreign exchange earner and consequently earmarked for export to meet the growing demands (from 10% to 15% per year) of its two neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.
In the past, the funding of hydroelectricity projects on the Mekong remained the restricted playground for international financial institutions such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Nowadays, funds become more easily available as local commercial banks are allowed to enter the game.
Obviously, there remain numerous drawbacks inherent to the dam projects on the main current of the Lower Mekong. First of all, the existence of the series of hydroelectric dams known as the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan, China poses a serious question as to whether an overall water management policy could be arrived at to ensure that there will be enough water to run the turbines located on the Lower Mekong all year round and allow them to generate the required power output to make their operations profitable. This unfortunate state of affairs is the end result of a situation where the contruction companies are only interested in building the dams without being proficient in hydroelectrical technology.
Through lack of information or willful ignorance – to use Milton Osborne’s words , the leaders of the countries bordering the Mekong are only interested in the short-term profits while turning a blind eye to the devastating and long-term impacts that will eventually befall their people. Will the inhabitants of the Mekong Basin be any happier with the unsustainable development they see around them? For millenniums, the gentle people of Laos always look at the Mae Nam Khong, the Lao-Thai name of the Mekong, as the Mother River that brings them an abundant source of livelihood i.e. water, fish, and rice. At the present time, their traditional and tranquil way of life is being greviously disrupted. The politicians – more precisely the Lao leaders – believe that their country is hopelessly backward and in dire need of rapid “renovation”. The solution they opted for is the production of hydroelectricity even at the undeniable cost of destroying the Mother River. Meanwhile the Lao farmers and fishermen are totally left in the dark as far as that threat is concerned. They are not given any say on the issue and even if they do venture their opinion their “non democratic” government will turn a deaf ear to their concerns.
FROM THE XAYABURI TO THE DON SAHONG DAM
The Xayaburi Dam is raising much controversy because it is the first dam to be built by Laos and Thailand on the main current of the Lower Mekong. It is noteworthy to recall that even though a decision to temporarily suspend the Xayaburi Dam Project was reached at the Meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on 12/ 08/ 2011, Laos never made a clear commitment to do so. The spokesperson of the Mekong River Commission, Mr. Surasak Glahan commented: “At the Siem Reap Meeting, the government of Laos didn’t mention the topic [Xayaburi Dam].” Soon after the close of the Meeting, the Mekong River Commission and other member countries have requested Laos to provide them with additional information concerning the dam. To this date, no reply has been forthcoming from the Lao government.
Recently, much attention and discussion have been focused on the small Don Sahong Dam located at the southernmost region of Laos, about 1 km from the border with Cambodia. The dam is built right at the Khone Falls classified as an area rich in global diversity that has a good chance to be classified as a Ramsar Wetland. [The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an international agreement signed on 02/02/1971 at Ramsar on the southern bank of the Caspian Sea in Iran. Its main objective is to ensure cooperation at the local, national, regional, and international levels to work toward a sustainable conservation and exploitation of the world’s wetlands]. Moreover, the Khone Falls serves as a vital transit point for the fish on their migration from the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia upstream the Mekong to the northern parts of Laos and Thailand to spawn. To go past the Khone Falls, the fish have to navigate a honeycomb of channels dotted with thousands of islets. The most important among them is the Hou Sahong Channel that stretches for seven kilometers from the Don Sahong to the Don Sadam islands. It is large and deep enough to allow the fish to swim upstream all year long. The Don Sahong Project threatens to bring about the extinction of two rare and precious fish species: the Pla Beuk / Pangasianodon gigas and the Irrawaddy Dolphins that are considered to be flagship species, the symbols of a healthy ecosystem of the Mekong.
The Pla Beuk fish / Pangasianodon gigas [Source: Tan S. Bunwath / WWF Cambodia]
The Irrawaddy Dolphin Mekong [Source: Kratie Province Government, Cambodia]
There are ample evidences pointing to the fact that though Don Sahong is the smallest of the 11 hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong (with a wall of only 30-32 meters tall and an output of 240-360 MW) the devastating impacts it visits on the ecosystem of the Mekong particularly on the migratory fish that congregate here are countless. The majority of the fish caught by the Lao and Thai fishermen are those that swim upstream from the Khone Falls. Even the fish that live in the main tributaries of the Mekong like the Mun in Thailand, the Xedon and the Xebanghien in Laos come from the Khone Falls.
Old hands at Lao affairs recognized that the genesis of the Don Sahong Project goes a long way back reflecting the extremely complex political setup of a Laos influenced by regional centers of power. The Lao government is nominally a dictatorship dominated by the Communist Party of Laos that is organized along the Vietnamese model. This fact does not prevent it from being swayed by the feudal system of family run centers of influence. A case in point is the Siphadone family that controls the reins of power in southern Laos. Khamtay Siphadone who served as president of Laos from 1998 to 2006 may no longer holds any official positions in the government but his family still controls a “mini kingdom” in southern Laos including the Khone Falls region also known as See Phan Done in the Champasak Province. Early in the 1990’s, this family gave the green light to a Malaysian firm to build to the north of the Khone Falls a luxurious tourist center that includes: a 5-star hotel with 2,000 rooms, a 18-hole golf course, two casinos and an airport capable of handling Boeing 737s.
This project came to a sudden stop due to the fianancial crisis that befell Asia in 1997. A while later, a second project also involving this tourist center was signed between Khamtay Siphadone’s son who was also the former governor of the Champasak Province with the Malaysian firm named Mega First Corporation Berhad to construct the hydroelectric Don Sahong Dam on the Khone Falls. The electricity generated by the dam will be used to service the tourist center whose majority sharedolder is none other than the Siphadone family. Any surplus power will be exported to Cambodia and Thailand.
Forseeing the disastrous impacts emanating from the Don Sahong Dam on the fishery of their country, members of the Cambodian National Committee of the Mekong addressed a letter of protestation to the Lao Government toward the end of 2007. Their message went unanswered. At one of the various meetings held in Siem Reap in November of the same year, the Cambodian delegation in concert with the NGOs again raised their opposition to the Don Sahong Dam Project and solicited a reply from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat. In the aftermath, the MRC sent a “critical” assessment on the Don Sahong Dam to the Lao Government that again gave it the silent treatment. This government went ahead and concluded with the Malaysian company Mega First a Project Development Agreement to go on with the construction of the hydroelectric Don Sahong Dam.
The Don Sahong Hydroelectric Dam 240-360 MW on the Khone Falls [Source: Milton Osborne, The Mekong River Under Threat]
In March of 2008, the Cambodian Prime Minister Mr. Hun Sen went in person to Laos to discuss the Don Sahong Project and its nefarious impacts on his country. According to Milton Osborne, for unexplained reasons, the Cambodian National Committee of the Mekong was ordered to desist from any public criticism of the Don Sahong Project .
[ It should be noted that Cambodia is also considering the building of the hydroelectric Sambor Dam. Along with the Don Sahong Dam, the duo is considered to be the two “death traps” to the fish species in the Mekong].
All indications show that the construction of the Don Sahong Dam will proceed ahead and the Lao Government will receive 20% of the shares of this project. The Don Sahong Dam may be smaller than those built on the Mekong’s tributaries in Laos, it nevertheless will give the “coup de grâce” to the most abundant fishery on this planet. The loss of an annual catch of 3 million tons would mean that the millions of people who depend on it for their food source would lose about 80% of their protein intake.
A former official in the Lao hydropower sector, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that the decision by the Lao government to build the Xayaburi Dam had already been taken and “Whatever the other Mekong countries say, they [Laos and Thailand] are determined to go ahead in 2012.”
Piaporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for NGO International Rivers observed:
“By moving under the radar of the Mekong River Commission, Thailand and Laos have threatened the spirit of regional cooperation and the integrity of the 1995 Mekong Agreement; while it’s no surprise that the dam builder Ch. Karnchang has lobbied extensively for the dam to proceed, it’s completely unacceptable that the Thai government would bow down to the project developer over the interest of its own people.”
In addition, Phillip Hirsch, director of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney, commented: “Dams have a hugely negative impact even in economic term. It’s not just environmental losses. According to a recent study, the economic cost to replace these ecosystem services has been estimated at around US$ 274 billion.” 
What’s more, Laos sent notice to the Mekong River Commission of its intention to proceed with its other dam projects on the currents of the Mekong and its tributaries. No matter how improbable this may seem, it is however taking place before our very eyes.
Apparently, this way of conducting business so peculiar to Laos appears to be single minded and consistent with a policy of: “hear nothing, say nothing, proceed ahead anyway”. This modus operandi in international relations can in no way be considered “civilized” in this 21st century. By so doing, the Lao Government showed that it is not observing the Article 7 of “the 1995 Mekong Agreement” it signed. It has unitarily sought its short-term national interests at the expense of those of its neighbors. To this date, the ability to counsel and coordinate of the Mekong River Commission often proved to be of little or no avail.