This piece originally appeared on Radio Free Asia.
Cambodian officials vowed on Friday to prevent neighbor Laos from going ahead with construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam without approval from fellow Mekong River basin countries that would be affected by the project.
The Phnom Penh officials, as well as local and international non-governmental organizations, have expressed alarm at reports that Laos was planning to push ahead with the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam—the second dam proposed for construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream, Southeast Asia’s main waterway.
“Our commission will meet again to discuss our next moves and what stance we should take. We have no choice but to pressure the government to take measures in order to prevent dam construction,” said Pol Ham, chairman of the Cambodian National Assembly Commission on Planning, Investment, Agriculture, Rural Development, Environment, and Water Resources.
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was surprised the Laotian parliament decided to give the green light to the project, which has not been approved by Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body that supervises development along the vital river. The MRC is made up of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
“I was wrong because I thought that international pressures would halt the project,” said Pol Ham, who criticized the Laotian government for disregarding the interests of communities that relying on the rivers waters and fisheries.
Asked about reports that surfaced in regional media in early September that the dam would go ahead, Viraphonh Viravong, Laos Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines told RFA’s Laotian Service “Yes, the concession contract was signed and the National Assembly has already approved it. This is being implemented according to the legal process.”
Conservation groups also have long urged the Lao government to postpone the construction of the Don Sahong dam, arguing that it will block migratory fish routes, destroy endangered ecosystems, and threaten nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.
“NGOs have expressed concern over the Don Sahong dam construction,” Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network in Cambodia, told RFA. He said that NGOs would continue to advocate against the dam construction.
“The Don Sahong Dam is not a done deal. Until there is regional agreement amongst neighboring countries over the future of the shared Mekong River, the Don Sahong Dam should not proceed,” the environmental group International Rivers said in a statement by Southeast Asia Program Director Ame Trandem issued last week.
“Regional governments have earlier made clear requests to the Government of Laos that further study and time for regional consultation over the project is needed,” said Trandem.
“Laos should abide by these requests by allowing a moratorium of at least two years, in order to carry out all of the necessary studies. In the meantime, all further contract negotiations, including for the project’s Power Purchase Agreement, should be halted,” she added.
The Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) echoed fellow NGO critics of Laos’ decision.
“The Don Sahong Dam is an ecological time bomb that threatens the food security of millions and a population of critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins. The dam will have negative impacts on the entire Mekong River ecosystem all the way to the Delta in Vietnam,” the WWF said.
“We ask the Laos Government and the developer – Malaysia’s MegaFirst Corporation Berhad – to reconsider this ill-fated decision and wait until further studies on the environmental and social impacts and all legal options and requirements under The Mekong 1995 Agreement have been completed,” added WWF.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement, signed by the four nations, stipulates that in the event that the MRC is unable to resolve a dispute, the issue shall be referred to the governments for “negotiation through their diplomatic channels.”
Reported by Mengchou Cheng for RFA’s Khmer Service and Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Laotian Service. Translated into English by Samean Yun. Written by Paul Eckert.