If you’ve thought of visiting Laos and seeing the magnificent Khone Falls, the largest in Asia, or catching a glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin, one of the oldest creatures on the planet, move that trip to the top of your bucket list. The Falls, the dolphins, and some villages along the lower Mekong may be gone in a few years. That’s because in March, the Lao Government confirmed its intention to proceed with the construction of the Don Sahong dam.
By December, the construction will begin despite the protests of environmental groups and the World Wildlife Fund, strong concerns voiced by neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, and without a go-ahead from the Mekong River Commission (MRC). If that sounds like déjà vu, you’re probably thinking of the Xayaburi Dam in Northern Laos. Construction began on that Mekong River dam in 2012 with apparent disregard for much controversy and serious environmental and human rights questions.
What Laos and the world stand to lose if the largest tributary of the Mekong is dammed is incalculable. There is the impact on the environment and wildlife and damage to the local economy and the lives of those who live along the Mekong. Here are just a few predictions:
• Migratory fish must pass through the Hou Sahong channel year round, and experts doubt Mekong fish can be taught to swim up a “fish ladder” like salmon. Seriously that was a proposed solution by developers of the Xayaburi dam.
• If alternative routes for fish migration don’t work–and many experts have serious doubts that they will –there will be serious impact on food and nutrition in Cambodia, according to a Cambodian member of the MRC.
• The end of fish also means the end of a livelihood for those who depend on fish catches above and below the Khone Falls. According to Time, the dam could decimate the world’s largest inland fishery.
• Sound waves from explosives used to excavate rock for the dam will likely kill the 85 rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in a 118-mile stretch of the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos. If any do manage to survive that bombardment, pollution and habitat degradation are likely to finish off the dolphins.
• The damage to wildlife will end of biodiversity so characteristic of this area. For example, the Mekong is home to more than 1,200 fish species.
• Damming the channel will have a serious impact on the sediment that fertilizes farmland. Plus, the accumulated sediment will eventually inhibit the power produced by the dam it self.
• The degradation will threaten the rice harvest of Vietnam’s fertile delta. Currently it’s the world’s second largest rice exporter.
So why build it? Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia and the poorest, yet its rivers, mountains, and plentiful rainforest have the potential to produce major natural hydraulic momentum–in other words hydropower to produce energy that could be sold to it’s neighbors. The catch is the Don Sahong dam will produce only 260 megawatts. That’s small “energy” change considering the damage that will be done.
The actions in Laos are the antithesis of how a country such as Bhutan thinks. Bhutan, not a rich country either, touts as a key pillar of Gross National Happiness the “conservation of the natural environment” and the promotion of “sustainable development.” In Laos, also a Buddhist country, the philosophy seems to epitomize the kind of short-range thinking, dominated by greed, which is so much a part of human political thinking.
There is still hope…and time. The MRC summit begins soon and on its list of priorities is a moratorium on the Don Sahong dam construction. The World Wildlife Fund, which has been especially active in protesting the dam, and Cambodian conservation groups are not giving up. We’re hoping they will be heard.