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Laos' trial and error approach threatens the Mekong

Nov 13. 2013
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By Pianporn Deetes
Special to Th

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On Monday, officials and journalists visited the site of the proposed Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos, at the invitation of the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Lao National Mekong Committee. The visit was an attempt to sell the project to neighbo

“The Don Sahong project follows in the dangerous footsteps of the Xayaburi Dam. Laos has become adept at claiming sustainability and simply ploughing ahead in their potentially catastrophic Mekong mainstream dams,” said Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ Southeast Programme director. “Their latest attempt to ‘greenwash’ the Don Sahong Dam cannot hide the environmental and political injustices of the project.”

The Xayaburi Dam is now approximately 13 per cent complete and despite repeated calls from international donors, final project designs have not been released to neighbouring countries nor opened up for public scrutiny, leaving unanswered questions over concerns about the credibility of the project’s proposed mitigation measures.

Following the dangerous precedent set by the Xayaburi Dam, Laos has ignored advice from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that the Don Sahong Dam must undergo a “prior consultation” process, instead choosing only to notify neighbouring countries of its unilateral decision to build the dam. The Lao government released the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment to neighbouring countries and to the public only days before construction was set to begin on the Don Sahong project’s coffer dam and work camps.

Such decisions should not be shrouded in a cloak of secrecy, but rather demand a regional decision that takes into account the opinions of millions of people whose lives depend on the Mekong. The Mekong is in an extremely precarious situation, in which the full extent of the dams’ impacts have yet to be understood. Transboundary impact assessments have not been carried out for the Don Sahong or Xayaburi dams, and the MRC’s 2011 Council study has yet to begin. Informed decisions are clearly taking a back seat to individual interests.

Scientific studies, including the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, have shown that the dams would block critical fish migrations and reduce the flow of nutrients that allow for agricultural productivity. Millions of people living along the river would lose livelihoods and fish that provide their main source of protein.

The impacts posed by the Don Sahong Dam bring a new level of risk to the biodiversity of the Mekong River, threatening to block the only channel of the Mekong that currently allows for year-round fish migrations on a large scale, while also wiping out one of the last pools of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. There are currently no viable tested measures to mitigate the harms or replace lost food security. Instead, both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam companies propose to study impacts during construction and then attempt to mitigate as they occur.

“The stakes are high and continuing to build Mekong dams through a trial and error approach is reckless and irresponsible,” continued Trandem.  “Scientific experts have warned that the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams have the potential to dramatically alter fish stocks and even wipe out species, leading to serious regional food security concerns. Rather than having blind faith in unproven and untested technology to mitigate the impacts, it’s time to take the precautionary approach that the Mekong deserves. The Mekong is too valuable for risky experiments.”

Pianporn Deetes is campaign coordinator for International River’s Thailand.

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