Laos confirmed this week that it is clearing land for workers’ housing in advance of the controversial Don Sahong Dam project, but said that work on the dam itself has not begun.
The hydroelectric project planned for the “4,000 Islands” area of Southeast Asia’s key artery the Mekong River is a joint venture of Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Bhd, with an 80 percent share in the project, and the government of Laos holding the remaining equity.
Environmental groups have said the proposed project will disrupt fish migration both up and down the river, destroying villagers’ livelihoods and the area’s biodiversity, and have urged the Lao government to consult with the four-nation Mekong River Commission (MRC) on the dam’s likely regional impacts before work begins.
“No, construction has not started yet,” an official of Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mining told RFA’s Lao Service on Monday.
“They are collecting data, reviewing the assessment of impacts on the environment, looking at social issues, and determining where to build what,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official admitted, though, that land is being cleared to make way for the construction of housing facilities for workers, and that about 15 households will have to be moved from the proposed dam site on Upper Sadam Island to Lower Sadam Island, about 3-5 kilometers (about 2-3 miles) away.
Work on the dam itself is scheduled to begin in early 2014, she said.
The International Rivers advocacy group warned in a July 16 statement that Laos now appears set to proceed with work on the Don Sahong Dam despite concerns over “environmental, social and economic costs that simply should not be ignored,”
“The Don Sahong dam, if It proceeds as planned, will condemn the Mekong River and its fisheries to unimaginable disaster,” International Rivers said.
International Rivers noted that Laos has not consulted the Mekong River Commission, which comprises Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, on the dam’s construction.
International law prohibits “all forms of project implementation, whether it is labeled as preparatory work or otherwise, until after the prior consultation process concludes,” it said.
An MRC spokesperson confirmed that the group has not been “officially” informed about plans for work on the dam.
“We have not been informed officially,” commission spokesperson Sourasak Klaharn told RFA on Wednesday.
“Therefore there’s nothing we can do for the time being in the matter of consultation or studies. We cannot go and investigate either, as this is not in our mandate.”
Were the MRC to be informed officially, he said, it would convene a meeting of the group’s four member countries to discuss the implications of the project for impacts on the wider region.
International Rivers said that while the Don Sahong Dam project has yet to initiate the MRC consultation process, “there is significant concern that construction activities and backdoor bilateral deals” on the project will proceed outside of the MRC jurisdiction, as was the case with Laos's Xayaburi Dam.
Developers of the Xayaburi Dam, which is about 10 percent complete, began work at the dam site, signed the power purchase agreement with Thailand, and signed financing agreements with Thai banks while discussions at the MRC were still under way, the environmental group said.
“The Xayaburi Dam has set a dangerous precedent that undermines future regional cooperation and illustrates the need for urgent reform of the MRC’s prior consultation process before additional projects proceed,” said Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia Program Director.
The Don Sahong Dam’s 2012 Environmental Impact Assessment report has yet to be released to the public in accordance with Lao laws, the group said.
Meanwhile, villagers in the affected area appear equally uncertain over the course the work will take, according to an energy and dam expert who surveyed the site last year.
“There was no clear data,” he told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Some said they were aware, some said they were not. They knew only that the Don Sahong Dam was going to be built, but they did not know the details.”