Don Sahong dam in Laos: Energy at what cost?

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The Mekong River Commission (MRC) held its first regional consultation meeting on the controversial Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHPP) on December 12 in Pakse in Lao PDR. The consultation was part of the Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement process (PNPCA) as required under the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

According to the MRC, the consultation was not a process to seek approval for the proposed project but a formal forum for all stakeholders to raise concerns about the dam’s potential impacts. However, while many environmental concerns were raised, it did not seem to really matter to the eventual decision over the dam. The MRC consultation left many questions unanswered over the fate of the Mekong River’s fisheries and the hundreds of thousands of local livelihoods to be affected by the dam.

Don Sahong dam forges ahead

The 1995 Mekong Agreement among the four lower basin countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam is intended to promote amicable river-sharing and cooperation for the sustainable management of water resources and prevent regional disputes on the Mekong River.

According to the agreement, the PNPCA process allows for discussing country concerns about projects affecting the Mekong River but does not provide for a member country to veto the project. At the same time, the PNPCA is intended to ensure the country proposing the project does not simply go ahead without taking into account riparian country concerns.

The CEO of the Mekong River Commission gives a speech at the Don Sahong regional consultation in Pakse, Laos, 12 December 2014 (Photo by Regional workshop participant.)

The CEO of the Mekong River Commission gives a speech at the Don Sahong regional consultation in Pakse, Laos, 12 December 2014 (Photo by Regional workshop participant.)

Regarding the Don Sahong dam, this in effect means that while concerns can be raised, the Government of Lao PDR (GoL) retains the right to go ahead with the project without making concessions to the Mekong riparian countries.

With the Don Sahong dam, the environmental consequences would be severe. The proposed dam will be 25 metres high with an installed capacity of 260 MW. The dam threatens to have a serious impact on the migratory fisheries in the Mekong region.

Located in the Siphandone (Khone Falls) area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border, the dam would block the Hou Sahong channel, the main channel for fish migrating between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand year around; however, the channel is especially important in the dry season when most other channels become impassable due to low water levels. The disruption of fish migrations through blocking of this vital channel means the destruction of vital subsistence and commercial fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin 1.

However, despite the controversy and the huge environmental and livelihood impacts posed by the dam, the dam developers bluntly said at the Pakse regional consultation that they do not yet know and nobody really knows about the potential impacts to Cambodian communities, which are about two kilometers downstream from the dam site in Laos. The dam’s Malaysian developers Mega First Corporation Berhad say the project is forging ahead.

Earlier in October 2014, local communities from Thailand and Cambodia filed a complaint to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission against the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong dam. While pursuing this legal avenue to stop the dam, many local communities and concerned groups under the umbrella of the “Save the Mekong Coalition” also released a statement: “We believe the Don Sahong Dam poses an unacceptable risk to regional fisheries, food security and the future of the Mekong and, as such, should be immediately cancelled.”

“The decisions that have been made about the design and operation of the Don Sahong Dam are based on assumptions which gamble with the future of the Mekong River and her people,” stated the Save the Mekong Coalition’s statement 2 (12 December 2014).

Dam design is ‘faith-based’

The dam is to be sited in the Siphandone (Khone Falls) area of Champasak province, southern Laos. The Khone Falls (also known as the ‘4,000 Islands’) are the largest in Southeast Asia, and is characterised by thousands of waterfalls, waterways, and islands. It is also one of the last remaining habitats of the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin.

Ms Nguyen Hong Phuong, Deputy Director General and representative of the Vietnam Mekong Committee (VNMC) said in the MRC consultation meeting that the cumulative impact assessment conducted by the developer should be prolonged and take into account more comprehensive studies about the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

She said there should be more studies on the fisheries related to the channels, specifically the Hou Sadam and Hou Xangpheauk channels, as these will function to replace the dammed Hou Sahong channel for fish migration.

Hang Sadam village in 2008, a fishing community on Don Sadam island located nearby to the proposed Don Sahong dam (Photo by Carl Middleton.)

Hang Sadam village in 2008, a fishing community on Don Sadam island located nearby to the proposed Don Sahong dam (Photo by Carl Middleton.)

In principle, there should be no construction at the proposed dam site as the PNPCA has not been completed yet. In fact, the Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines, Mr Viraphonh Viravong told the media during a tour of the project site early this month that they will begin a formal construction on the Don Sahong dam in December, even though the next national and regional public consultations (in Thailand and Cambodia) have not yet been concluded (the Thailand National PNPCA is scheduled to be on January 15th in Bangkok).

The transboundary impacts also promise to be huge. The project’s EIA has failed to address the comprehensive and complex potential threats to the health of the Mekong River. Although the dam developers proposed an adaptive approach to fishery mitigation by continuing to conduct studies as they go along for a period of ten years, this does not address the concerns that the dam would destroy people’s food security and the region’s river and tourism economies. Adaptive management approaches downplay uncertainty, and often redistribute project risk towards local communities to the gain of the project developer who can then proceed with construction.

Mr Oudom, a researcher at ERI’s Mekong School Alumni, said that the Don Sahong dam seems to be an experimental site for the developer’s proposed mitigation methods such as modified channels for upstream fish migration, sedimentation, water quality, etc. that are all still untested and in fact have been criticised by scientists 3.

“Specifically, at the moment there is not in place a sufficient and efficient mechanism to hold the Malaysian company accountable if the mitigation plan doesn’t work,” said Mr Oudom.

A scientific review done by World Wildlife Fund Cambodia (WWF) (February 2014) also stated that the proposed mitigation strategy has the possibility of seriously impacting (fish) stocks. More importantly, this proposed fish passage is unproven, and largely ‘faith based‘.

“Effective fish passage is usually defined as providing safe passage for 95% of the target species under all flow conditions. While the proposed passage systems may attain this level for some stocks of fish and some life stages of fish, it appears unlikely that it would attain this for all stocks of fish and which species must be targeted for passage is not yet clear,” stated the WWF report.

Energy hub, energy pride

Sales of the electricity from the Don Sahong dam will go to Thailand and Cambodia. Along with Don Sahong, Laos is planning a whole series of dams including the also-controversial US$3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in its bid to become the “energy hub” for the Mekong Region. Some of the dam locations are: Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Xayaburi, Pak Lay, and Sanakham in northern Laos; Pak Chom and Ban Koum on the Thai-Lao border; and Lat Sua in southern Laos.

Thai companies and state-owned enterprises such as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) are collaborating with the GoL to build more hydropower dams in Laos and import the electricity to power Thailand especially its urban areas.

The official website of the Department of Energy Business (DEB) of Laos called ‘Powering Progress’ (www.poweringprogress.org) clearly states that as Laos is a “land-locked mountainous country”, it has few options to diversify its energy sources. The GoL thus plans on a hydropower energy program as a source of income for achieving so-called sustainable social and economic development of the country. The GoL says that the profits from hydropower sales will be used to “fight poverty” in the country 4.

Nowadays ‘sustainable hydropower’ is the “big thing” in the Mekong Region. Sustainable hydropower is being promoted as offering so-called clean, sustainable, cost-effective energy by governments and donors, as well as industry groups such as the International Hydropower Association. Laos is said to have the “hydroelectric potential” of about 26,500 MW including with dams on the mainstream Mekong River; of this capacity, about 18,000 MW is technically “exploitable, with 12,500 MW already in planning to be exploited.” 5

The proposed site of the Don Sahong Dam, with a project trigonometric marker in the foreground, photographed in 2008 (Photo by Carl Middleton.)

The proposed site of the Don Sahong Dam, with a project trigonometric marker in the foreground, photographed in 2008 (Photo by Carl Middleton.)

In 2007, the GoL said that by 2020 it was committed to supply 7,000 MW to Thailand, 5,000 MW to Vietnam and 1,500 MW to Cambodia 6. However, in order to attain this desired supply, Laos needs to build a national energy grid that also draw power from not only the Don Sahong dam but also other hydropower dams such as Nam Ngum, Nam Ngiep, Nam Thuen and Nam Ou.

While this scenario in theory looks rosy, in fact, Laos is locking itself into a great deal of dependence on consistent sales to external and large energy markets such as Thailand. Without buyers who offer large energy consumption, Laos cannot run the hydropower plants.

This is also because domestic energy demand in Laos is far below its planned electricity generation 7. About 25 percent of Laos’ households have no access at all to electricity; those that do have access are concentrated in the urban areas 8. Moreover, there are no details of how the profits from hydropower sales will benefit the country’s population. Many critics have already pointed out the fact that Laos lacks the institutions to manage and distribute the revenue fairly and evenly.

Moreover, corruption is prevalent especially as its officialdom has a reputation for rubber-stamping projects in exchange for paybacks. All this taken together means that the so-called “sustainable hydropower” is revealed to be an act of river grabbing, when its profits would most likely bring poverty and disaster to thousands of communities in Laos and the Mekong Region. The local people are being forced to give up their fishing grounds and other river-based livelihoods at the expense of hydropower production.

Energy profits vs. fisheries livelihoods

Of Laos’ population of about six million people, about 75-80 percent still live in rural areas; an estimated 32 percent of the people are living below the poverty line 9.

According to the MRC’s report on fisheries in Laos, the total area of water resources for capture fisheries is believed to be more than 1.2 million ha, with more than 481 fish species having been identified, including 22 exotic species 10.

Of the 4,000 tonnes of fish caught every year in Khong district in Southern Laos alone, 70 per cent is consumed locally as fresh or preserved fish and 30 per cent is sold. For about 72,000 inhabitants, the fish consumption traded out of the Khong district is valued at about US$1 million 11. Wild capture fisheries are important to the economy of Lao PDR, and hydropower dams are threatening the survival of the country fishery revenue.

“The fishery resources deserve to be the key component in improving health and food security of the people of Laos. Specifically, the Khone Falls fishery is of great importance in supporting livelihoods and income generation for locals, and quality fish supplies to all Mekong countries,” states an MRC report (2008).

A woman selling fish at downstream Khone Fall - one of the main livelihoods of local villagers in Siphan Done area. Those fish were caught at just less than 2 km downstream of Don Sahong on the Lao side. (Photo by Hoang Duong.)

A woman selling fish downstream of Khone Fall, which is one of the main means of livelihood for local villagers in the Siphandone area. Those fish were caught just less than 2 km downstream of the proposed Don Sahong dam on the Laos side. (Photo by Hoang Duong.)

There are many alternative ways for Laos to produce energy and alleviate poverty. Many small-scale, tried and tested, scale-appropriate energy alternatives exist that can provide people with access to electricity, and still retain the ecological health of the Mekong River. An energy strategy that depends on building these hugely expensive and destructive dams across the Mekong River will wipe out the very resources that rural communities depend upon for their lives and economies. Yet it’s not too late to change the course of this dangerous “development”.

Not ignoring people’s voices in the decision-making process, especially those who know the river ecosystems the best – namely the river basin communities themselves – would be one good way to start.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. DSHPP. International Rivers.
  2. Save the Mekong is a coalition of non-governmental organizations, local people, academics, journalists, artists and ordinary people from within the Mekong countries and internationally, working to keep the Mekong free-flowing for present and future generations. For more information, visit www.savethemekong.org.
  3. WWF-Cambodia (February, 2014). Scientific review from three international fish passage experts on the Don Sahong dam EIA and the technical reports related to project design and mitigation measures.
  4. Department of Energy Business (DEB). Hydropower in Lao PDR.
  5. Department of Energy Business (DEB). Hydropower in Lao PDR.
  6. Department of Energy Business (DEB). Hydropower in Lao PDR.
  7. CIA the World Factbook, Energy sector (e.g., generation, consumption, etc.) in Lao PDR (20 June, 2014.
  8. International Financial Corporation (IFC), the World Bank Group. IFC Promotes Sustainability in Lao PDR’s Hydropower Sector.
  9. ADB (2008). Basic statistics for developing member countries. Economic Research Department, Asian Development Bank.
  10. MRC’s report on fishery in Lao PDR Mekong Development Series No. 6 (May 2013)
  11. Simon R.Bush. (February 2004). Scales and sales: Changing social and spatial fish trading networks in the Siphandone fishery, Lao PDR. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 25(1): 32

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