Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Destruction of the Don: Dam Project Threatens Food Security on the Mekong

Peering into the early morning mist created by thousands of tons of Mekong water collapsing from Laos into nearby Cambodia, I was surprised when a small black shape emerged.

He looked as spindly and fragile as a botanical specimen.

Inching across a barely perceptible cable across what is known as the Khone Falls (Khone Phapheng), he slipped and fell. The sheer weight of the water pushed him into the white surge below. I was the sole spectator to his act of survival as he gained a toe hold. I could imagine his muscles screaming as he made it to safety.

Above the falls, the Mekong dissolves into a tracery of islands (Siphandone or Four Thousand Islands), supporting a breathtaking traditional culture of fishermen so brave and inventive they have developed fishing systems that are part subsistence, part Cirque de Soleil. The fishermen have been captured by the National Geographic and the BBC and draw many travelers, awed by the wild nature of the place.

The Mekong River is the stuff of legends. It is said to contain powerful naga spirits, which annually hurl fire balls into the night sky. Skeptics attributed the seemingly supernatural event to  tracer fire from the Lao army, provoking indignant outrage. Many things seem to provoke stolid outrage in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. But they appear to be imperiously dismissive of protests resulting from their projects, in particular the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHPP), blocking the major fish migration channel which allows the fish safe passage around the Falls, the Hoo Sahong.

Fishy Business

The Mekong region is the richest inland fishery in the world. Some put the annual catch as high as 2.1 metric tons:

Source:  Baran, Chheng and Nao 2013.

“Of the 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB), about 40 percent live within a 15-km corridor along the Mekong River, most within 5 km of the mainstream,” the Mekong River Commission writes. “… the river acts as the region’s highway and provides access to trade, food security and livelihoods.”

Increasingly, that is coming under threat from dams, mining pollution, fishing concessions and the push to capital development, now called modernization.

“In the peak seasons [May to June and August to September], we catch a ton of fish a day,” said Chat Hen, a Lao who shares Cambodian extraction. A resident of an island called Don Dhek, he gestured at his ly, a contraption like a mini ski jump. In the background, his wife gutted small fish before laying them in a bamboo lattice to dry.

Fish are central to the Siphadone area. Those fish not eaten are sold on to other centers. I watched as Souphet packed fish into ice boxes for the long road trip north to the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang.

“We use the money to buy rice,” he said.

The dam’s construction company, Mega First Berhad, will utilize a natural fall of about 20 meters in the channel to the east of the Mekong River formed by the “Great Fault” to effectively obstruct the channel. Labeled a “run of the river” dam, it will be more than 20 meters high. The World Commission on Dams classifies anything higher than 15 meters as a big dam.

The structures will also destroy an age-old community of fishers whose shrines and eccentric fish traps are testimony to continuous culture. Abducted activist Sombath Somphone and wife, Shui Meng Ng, wrote that it is community cohesion that enables families to get through seasonal hard times without severe adverse effects on nutrition. So it is in Siphandone.

Not surprisingly, earlier plans for damming the channel were rejected by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on environmental grounds. This time, it appears as though the company is attempting to bypass the MRC.

Three months ago, a regulatory insider requesting anonymity predicted that the government of Laos would describe the Don Sahong as a tributary dam, thus avoiding all need for the regional consultations stipulated by the MRC’s rules. In late October, the government did just that.

There is considerable regional concern that this and other dams will devastate fish populations in the Cambodian part of the Mekong, whose backwash fills the prodigious Tonle Sap. Fish stocks in Cambodia are already in trouble, as they are in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. It’s a complex picture and set to be made worse by climate change.

Another unnamed official reported that Vietnamese businesses were pressuring Lower Mekong communities to sign over fishing rights. Industrial and mining development is changing the riparian ecology. Diseases such as schistosomiasis are spreading; nutritional and medicinal river plants are reported by locals to be dying back. It seems the precautionary principle is dead.

A researcher looking at Mekong food security, Jannie Armstrong, issued a note of caution.

“While many people say that food security is threatened by the dam, it’s very hard to prove. We have to prove that the dam results in a marked decrease in fish-based protein consumption, and link that to nutritional status. To do that requires baseline data which does not exist, and regular surveillance which also doesn’t exist. To be brutally honest, the government of Laos can claim that there is no impact on food security and there is no data to argue.”

“That being said, there is no doubt that the ecological and social damage will be great and that historically leads to hunger,” Armstrong said.

Environmental Impact Anxiety

Mega First has attempted to assuage regional anxiety by offering reassurances that there will be no adverse environmental outcomes. Trouble is, investigations reveal that their experts may not be all they claim to be. The dam project’s principal environmental officer is Dr. Greg Weary, ex-vice president of SNC-Lavalin, Inc., Canada’s biggest engineering firm. Banned by the World Bank and others after bribery scandals in the developing world – in particular India – Lavalin has been called upon to rehabilitate three faulty hydro dams.

Also, the environmental expert for Laos does not appear on the records of the university with which he claims an affiliation.

“No one I know has ever heard of him, but that does not mean much. James Cook University has a lot of people who claim association,” said Professor Jeff Sayer of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.

Terry Warren, a regional fisheries expert asserts,  “A barrier placed across this vital channel has the potential to destroy dry season fisheries throughout much of southern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Most think that fish merely migrate to spawn, but 200 to 250 species of migratory fish traverse the bypass channel twice a year, reacting to seasonal triggers. Hou Sahong is the route used by perhaps 80-90 percent of migratory fish that need to negotiate the falls in the dry season. Only a few use other channels and only in the wet season.”

“They (DSHPP) are hoping the fish will divert through the Hou Sadam, but it’s four kilometers away. The fish have thousands of years of hardwired instinct to overcome to do that,” Warren said. “The Hou Sahong dam will isolate large fish living below the dam from the ones above it. These two isolated populations may be able to exist on their own, or they may not be able to. No one knows the answer to this.”

Dr. Eric Baran, former chief scientist of World Fish, wrote that no mitigation of the dam’s environmental impacts was possible.

Dr. Ian Baird, who extensively researched the area, concurs. “The dam would cause serious nutritional problems throughout the Mekong Region. Decreasing availability of fish in the marketplace would lead to higher prices, reducing fish consumption, especially by poorer consumers,” he wrote.

Source: Baran, Chheng and Nao 2013.

Mega Bucks

Mega First Berhad holds wide and diverse interests in Asia and China’s mainland and appears to be expanding, but it has no experience with hydropower generation. It is supported by some of China biggest banks. According to Bloomberg, to date the company’s principal activities are investment and management services. Their subsidiaries and associates are build, own and operate conventional power plants, property development, limestone quarrying and trade in lime-based products, design and manufacturing of automotive and transportation components and medical technology, ticketing and tour services, and manufacturing and trading of ladies undergarments.

Interestingly, a far less destructive dam was planned for nearby: The Thakho dam, a joint venture initiated by the French in partnership with Electricite Du Lao.

Baird conjectured that the Thako dam was more economically viable and would produce more power. The French dam would offer travelers something more than a blockhouse, enabling the local communities to benefit from tourism. More important, being set back from the falls and being a real run-of-the-river dam, the Thakho would not interfere with the fish migration.

One wonders, then: Why the determination to build this destructive dam and, of course, cui bono (to whose benefit)?

© Food Safety News
  • 1Robert4

    Two things what was it fell from a cable? Secondly what happens to me a non-journalist should not happen to you a Professional you must check your writing Viz., “The Mekong region is the richest inland fishery in the world. Some put the annual catch as high as 2.1 metric tons:” that’s crazy so I had to search your original with graphs to add the word “million” as 2.1 tons I could see in one village of Vietnam.