Foreign Minister presses Laos on Don Sahong Dam

Cambodia Construction News Laos Vietnam

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong (R) shake hands with Somsavat Lengsavad, Lao Deputy Prime Minister in charge of economic affairs, in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Xinhua/Sovannara

Lao Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad agreed yesterday to take a closer look at the potential impact of the contentious Don Sahong Dam project just north of the border. In a closed-door meeting in the capital, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong appealed again to his Lao counterpart to put the brakes on the project until a proper impact assessment has been conducted. 

“Cambodia has been worried about the negative impact of the Don Sahong Dam project and has always requested the Lao government to reconsider this project because of its negative impact on the country, especially on the flow of water and fish,” he said after the meeting. 

With the dam site located along the Mekong River just two kilometers upstream from the border, environmental groups and the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam are concerned about its toll on fishing communities downstream and on the Irrawaddy Dolphins native to the area. They say the Lao government and Malaysian engineering company Mega First Corporation Berhad (MFCB) have done little to assuage these fears. 

The project is one of 11 hydropower dams proposed or under construction along the Lower Mekong River. 

Last month, the Lao government officially approved the company’s concession and said that construction would begin in November. Since June, there have been reports of materials being transported to the site. The announcement came despite pleas from Cambodian and Vietnamese representatives in the Mekong River Commission to conduct further studies. 

Under the 1995 Mekong Agreement between Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, the commission has to make a “good faith” effort to reach a consensus before projects are improved, and a proper impact assessment should be studied by members. For six months this year, the commission met during “prior consultations” on the project. The negotiations fell apart in July, however, when the Lao government balked at requests for further environmental assessments. Since then, it has appeared that the project was moving forward quickly despite vocal objections from Vietnam and quieter concern from Cambodia. 

“Laos declared that they had done everything under the Mekong Agreement,” Te Navuth, Secretary General of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, told Khmer Times last month. “It’s true that they have done something but it’s not sufficient to educate everyone about the potential trans-boundary effects.”

Environmental concerns

Speaking after the meeting, Mr. Namhong expressed concern about the potential toll on the country’s waterways.

“I told Somsavat Lengsavad that Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River is the life of the Cambodian people and the river depends on the water from the Mekong River, so any adverse impacts on the Mekong River will affect Tonle Sap River, fishery resources, and Cambodian people’s lives,” Mr. Namhong told reporters.

Despite these concerns, the Lao Deputy Prime Minister said that Prime Minister Hun Sen had pledged not to “deny” the project. Mr. Hun Sen has asked Laos to confirm that the dam would not have a negative impact on countries downstream before going ahead with construction. 

In response to pressure from its neighbor, Mr. Lengsavad said that the two countries had agreed to set up a joint commission to study the dam’s impact. Neither foreign minister could confirm if this joint commission would postpone the start of construction of the dam next month. 

“The Lao government will not construct something which seriously impacts Cambodia and Vietnam,” Mr. Langsavad said. 

He told reporters that the project would not affect water flow to Cambodia, nor would it divert the river’s course. 

NGO International Rivers counters that claim, saying that the proposed project would form a “barrier” to a channel critical for year-round fish migration. The group predicts that the dam could impact “hundreds of thousands” of people living along the river.

Additional reporting by Ban Sokrith.