03/07/2014, 00.00
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In Laos, poorly designed Don Sahong dam threatens Mekong

Environmentalists slam Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) based on "incomplete" research. The project endangers fish and more than 60 million people living in the lower basin of the river. Some of the endangered species are "unique". Damage is estimated at between US$ 1.4 and 3.9 billion a year.

Vientiane (AsiaNews) - The developer of the proposed Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in Laos has based the project's Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) on "flawed and incomplete research". It has also failed to consult communities that would be affected by it, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said Tuesday.

For the conservation group, the lives of least 60 million people living along the lower basin of the river are at risk, not to mention the river's fish population.

Because the EIA made by Malaysia's Mega First Berhad, the company selected to build the dam, is so flawed, the environmental group wants the 260-megawatt project to be suspended. Construction was slated to start by the end of September.

In Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the dam has already set off numerous protests. For critics, the dam project has failed to vet its impact downstream.

The "WWF's review, conducted by international fish passage experts, finds the EIA riddled with problems such as inappropriate research methods, contradictory or lack of evidence and making recommendations on mitigation that have not been proven to work," the conservation group said.

For the WWF, the dam's site is wrong, chosen without proper knowledge relating to the natural environment and the people living in the area.

Speaking to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Chhith Sam Ath, country director for the WWF in Cambodia, said that the EIA needs to be carried out "objectively and scientifically" in order to fully understand the risks to people, natural resources and wildlife in the Lower Mekong.

In its current form, the EIA does not address trans-boundary concerns, and lacks critical knowledge and data regarding the impact of the dam. It therefore "cannot be considered acceptable as a scientific study". Instead, the dam can be expected to "hasten the extinction of the river's unique wildlife."

If built, the Don Sahong, which is to be located slightly more than a kilometre from the Lao-Cambodia border, will block the Hou Sahong Channel - the only year-round channel for trans-boundary fish migration on the Mekong.

For the WWF, blocking the channel would cause "permanent damage" to the Mekong basin's fishery resources, which it valued at between U.S. .4 billion and .9 billion per year.

According to design guidance by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body that monitors development on the waterway, hydropower projects must ensure that 95 percent of target fish species can pass through the dam's fish passage, WWF said.

Chhith Sam Ath said that there was no scientific evidence in the Environmental Impact Assessment to support claims that the Don Sahong will not have a significant impact on fisheries.

For this reason, WWF experts want a joint Lao-Cambodian commission to study the issue, hoping that bilateral talks between Phnom Penh and Vientiane will include residents in the area affected by the project.

The Mekong River starts in the Tibetan plateau, flows through China's Yunnan province until it reaches Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

About 65 million people live along the river, relying on fish farms and the natural fishery, which is worth an estimated US$ 3 billion.

Considered the second most important river in the world in terms of biodiversity, the 4,880-km long Mekong is threatened by a number of projects involving dams and hydroelectric power plants.

Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) have called for a ten-year moratorium but have not had any success. Meanwhile, there has been a 300,000 tonnes drop in fish catch.

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