Mekong Mainstream Dam Threatens Food Security of Millions

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A growing body of evidence reveals that the first dam planned for the lower Mekong Mainstream, the Don Sahong Dam in Southern Laos, could affect the Mekong River’s rich and productive fisheries. A new report reveals just how extensive that damage could be.

The Khone Falls area in southern Laos is a breathtaking ecological wonder. At the height of the wet season, torrents of water cascade down spectacular rapids and waterfalls that stretch for over ten kilometers. Local fishermen perform death-defying circus acts, walking along wires strung above the thundering river to get to their fish traps, which provide a bountiful catch. Even in the dry season, when the Mekong’s flow is considerably lower, the falls remain a spectacular sight; swathes of eerie river-smoothed bedrock are revealed, while water continues to pour through the area’s major channels.

A dam across just one of the many channels that weave their way through the Khone Falls area may not seem like such a terrible proposition. But scientists point out that this one channel, called the Hou Sahong Channel, is the only one in the area without waterfalls, and thus the only channel passable year-round by fish. The World Fish Centre has described this channel as a “crucial passageway” and “the only major channel of fish migration between Cambodia and Laos.”

A report published this month reveals that the Don Sahong Dam could affect the food security of millions of people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The report was written by Dr. Ian Baird, an affiliate of the Polis Project on Global Governance at the University of Victoria, Canada, and the leading expert on fisheries in the Khone Falls area of Southern Laos.

According to Dr. Baird, the Don Sahong Dam would block the migration of many important fish species that move up and down the Mekong River throughout the year, and that must pass through the Khone Falls area to make their incredible journeys. The Hou Sahong Channel is especially important for dry season fish migrations. As a result, the dam could seriously impact fisheries as far upstream as northern Laos and northern Thailand. Because these fish would be unable to complete their lifecycles upstream of the Khone Falls, Baird points out that their populations downstream from the dam would also be threatened, including important fisheries in the Tonle Sap in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Tonle Sap River and Great Lake support by far the most important fisheries in Cambodia, while the Mekong Delta in Vietnam also supports large fisheries that are especially important to subsistence fishing families.

The report concludes that “fisheries losses in the Mekong region from the Don Sahong Dam could negatively impact the nutritional status of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people dependent on these fisheries, thus decreasing the health of a large human population, especially in parts of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand where nutritional standards are already low.”

The Don Sahong Dam, a hydropower project, whose electricity would primarily be for export, is being developed by Malaysian company Mega First Corporation Berhad. The project was expected to give notification to the Mekong River Commission earlier this year, signaling the Lao government’s intention to move forward with the dam, but has been delayed due to a lack of a market for its power. Laos already has several dams at an advanced stage of planning vying for contracts to sell power to Thailand.

Baird’s work adds to a growing body of evidence about the importance of Mekong River fish for food security in the region. According to the Mekong River Commission, the river supports the world’s largest inland fishery, worth at least US$2 billion at first-sale value. Taking into account secondary industries such as fish processing and marketing, the total economic value for the Mekong’s fisheries is somewhere between US$5.6 and US$9.4 billion per year, contributing significantly to the region’s economy. Between half and four-fifths of the animal protein consumed by the 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin come from the river’s fisheries. As fish protein is central to human nutrition in the Mekong region, the reduction of fish catch will increase the incidence of malnutrition that is already a serious problem in some areas, especially for the region’s most vulnerable people.

According to Baird’s paper, the mitigation measures proposed in the project’s draft environmental impact assessment are unlikely to be effective. There is no known fish pass that could cope with the unique biological requirements of all the fish species that migrate past the Khone Falls each year. The proposal to widen an adjacent channel is also likely to be ineffective because it would require major engineering works that would be extremely costly.

The report was sent to the Lao and Cambodian governments. In addition, an open letter endorsed by 44 leading fisheries scientists, nutritionists and development workers from the region and around the world was distributed. The letter urges the Lao government and other concerned parties to “prioritize alternative options for meeting Laos’ development needs, options that would protect natural resources while supporting people’s food security and decreasing poverty.”

Keo Boonavat, a fisherman living along the Hou Sahong Channel, agrees. “The Mekong and its fish – this is our life,” he says. “We love our Mekong. Can the government feed us if this dam takes away all our fish?”