The development of two dams on the Lower Mekong River in Laos may have potentially devastating impact on the food security and livelihoods of 60 million people in the area, an international environmental group said.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says the much-criticized Xayaburi and the Don Sahong hydroelectric dam projects along the Mekong River in Laos will threatened the area’s freshwater resources. When completed, both dams will supply electricity mainly to neighboring Thailand.
The WWF notes that the Mekong is considered the world’s most productive river, accounting for up to 25 percent of the global freshwater fish catch and is second only to the Amazon River for fish biodiversity.
The group contends that the completion of the US$3.8 billion Xayaburi project would be the first dam to block the main stem of the Lower Mekong, one of the world’s last untamed rivers. And the 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam, to be constructed farther downstream, will place the world’s largest inland fishery at risk.
“The Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams are setting negative precedents for the lower Mekong,” Marc Goichot, sustainable hydropower lead with WWF-Greater Mekong, said in a printed statement issued Sunday on World Water Day. “The short-term gains will be overshadowed by long-term losses to food security, other economic sectors and biodiversity across the Greater Mekong Region.”
Local conservation groups and residents have objected to the building of the Xayaburi dam, which is under construction under on the Lower Mekong about 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of the town of Xayaburi in northern Laos.
When construction on the project’s second stage began in January, local Thai fishermen expressed concern that unpredictable manmade tides would continue to deplete fish populations and diminish their livelihoods.
The WWF believes the Xayaburi project will be “one of the world’s most potentially destructive dams because of the serious impact it will have on fisheries for tens of millions of people.”
It also would reduce sediment transit and permanently change the shape of the Mekong River channel, WWF said.
Don Sahong dam
Conservation groups also have urged the Lao government to postpone the construction of the Don Sahong dam, arguing that it will block migratory fish routes and destroy endangered ecosystems, threatening nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries. Like Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia all border the Mekong.
Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) is building the dam on the Mekong River, just two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of Cambodia.
Explosives used to remove millions of tons of rock for the Don Sahong dam project could damage the hearing or potentially kill endangered dolphins located two miles away, WWF said.
The dam also would block the only channel available for dry-season fish migrations on the Mekong River and the millions who rely on it for food and livelihoods, the group said.
In late January, the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission, which conducts prior consultations for the Don Sahong project to evaluate benefits, risks and impact on the environment and people in the Lower Mekong Basin, met in Vientiane.
But participants deferred any decision to future meetings at the ministerial level because representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam could not agree on how to proceed with the project.
Laos insisted that the Don Sahong dam’s prior consultation process had been completed, but its neighbors wanted an extension of the process until further studies and additional consultations had been conducted.
Plans by Laos and its neighbors to dam up rivers critical to local livelihoods have sparked protests in every country, forcing the mostly authoritarian governments of the region to pay attention to environmentalists.
WWF said the Thako Water Diversion Project would produce nearly the same amount of power as the Don Sahong dam but have a less harmful impact.
The project, located East of Phapheng Falls (Khone Falls) in Champasak Province on the Mekong River in southern Laos near the border with Cambodia, would have an installed capacity of 86-172 megawatts and use local geographical features to generate about the same amount of electricity as the Don Sahong dam, according to WWF.
The project would not jeopardize the existence of endangered Lao dolphins. It also would have minimal changes in the flow distribution between different channels and produce cheaper electricity, WWF said.
The group also said Thailand’s government could use sustainable energy sources to generate the same amount of electricity as the Xayaburi Dam.
The WWF said hydropower projects should meet high levels of internationally-accepted sustainability and independently-certified environmental impact assessments that are made available to the public.
It has called for a 10-year moratorium on dams along the Mekong’s main artery to allow time for adequate environmental impact assessments in line with a recommendation made by the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments in 2010.