Article from The Economist print edition
Dolphins, catfish and people at risk
THINK dams inundating idylls in developing countries were things of
the past? Think again. To the dismay of many, the Siphandon (“4,000
Islands”) district of southern Laos, home to pretty waterfalls,
tranquil waterways and a colony of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, is
the site planned for a 240MW hydro-electric dam. Even parts of the Lao
government think it is a step too far.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Its government is eager
to harness what natural resources it has, notably an abundance of
mountains and surging rivers. Seven dams are already working on its
bit of the Mekong and 11 more are under preparation, including the
massive, and controversial, 1,088MW Nam Theun 2 project. In 2006 the
government signed a deal with Mega First of Malaysia to look at
constructing a barrage across the Hou Sahong channel of the Mekong,
near the Cambodian border. The idea is to sell electricity to
Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The project is backed by most of the government and by Khamtay
Siphandon, an 83-year old former guerrilla leader and ex-president who
took his name from the district where he was born. But it has incurred
the wrath not only of green campaigners but of people within the
government’s own ranks.
Some officials want the affected wetlands listed under the Ramsar
Convention, an international treaty protecting such areas. Experts in
fisheries and even the assessment commissioned by Mega First and an
Australian partner said the project posed serious threats. If the dam
goes ahead it may block a channel that more than 200 species of
migratory fish, such as giant catfish, use to bypass waterfalls
between Laos and Cambodia. This would disrupt their breeding cycles
and might wreck the livelihoods of the riparian population. Last month
34 scientists from around the world signed an open letter stressing
the importance of this migration channel. Around 70m people in Laos
and beyond depend on Mekong fish.
Mega First wants to build a “fish pass” to deal with migration-a non-
starter, say opponents, given the huge number of fish that traverse
the area. They hope this is one project where an international outcry,
threats to a rare ecosystem and potential loss of local livelihoods
may offset the probably limited financial gains from supplying power
to Laos’s neighbours.