Trapped by change

The impending Don Sahong dam has the potential to cause environmental catastrophe and destroy the livelihoods of the area’s daredevil fishermen

December 23, 2013
Trapped by change
Hard slog: a fisherman mends his trap, known as a li, at the Khone Phapheng falls in Laos

Southern Laos’ 4,000 Islands region is often described as a unique and unspoiled microcosm. It is home to grazing water buffaloes, lush green rice fields, Southeast Asia’s largest waterfalls and the nearly extinct Irrawaddy dolphin. Suffice to say, numerous postcards have doubtless been shot in the area.

A 30-metre-high, 256-megawatt hydropower dam doesn’t quite fit the picture.

In October, however, the Laos government informed neighbouring countries and the Mekong River Commission – a regional body set up to support multilateral decisions – that construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam was to go ahead and that building would begin in November.

Environmentalists and scientists alike said that the dam would put at risk the entire ecological integrity of the Lower Mainstream Mekong, as well as the livelihoods and cultural identity of about 60 million people who depend on the river.

Murky waters: a lone fisherman leaves Don Det island, in the middle of the Mekong River, on his boat
Deadliest catch: fishermen risk their lives setting, checking and bringing in their traps at the Khone Phapheng falls
Catfish caught near the Don Sahong dam site
Catch of the day: fish caught at Si Phan Don are sold at the local market in Nakasang

In Si Phan Don, the local name for 4,000 Islands, where the dam will be located, locals were unaware of the plans just weeks before construction began.

“The dam? I have heard that there were plans many years ago, but that’s all I know,” said Newachiti Kamla, a weathered 43-year-old fisherman.

Local media, all controlled by Laos’ ruling communist party, have left fishing communities in the dark regarding the devastating impact the dam is expected to have on their lives.

Like most people living on one of the 4,000 Islands, Newachiti is dependent upon fishing to support his family. To secure a decent catch, he dives into the strong currents of the Liphi waterfalls and the much larger Khone Phapheng falls – the largest in Southeast Asia and the reason the Mekong River is not navigable from China.

For a good catch, Newachiti must risk his life. “It’s very dangerous, especially when we use a trap. The traps are in the waterfalls, and when we jump in to check them, we have to be very careful,” he said, while tying nets beneath his stilted house.

Cutting it fine: Newachiti Kamla and his son Bun prepare bamboo sticks at their home to make a fishing trap

Newachiti and the fishermen of Si Phan Don know all too well the pitfalls of the Mekong. Their fathers and grandfathers have taught them well, as did their fathers and grandfathers before them, he said.

The river’s current changes between the wet and dry seasons, and setting up traps, fixing them and checking for a catch is perilous work. Every year, the handmade bamboo traps, some of which are as tall as the fishermen themselves, are set. Fish become stuck because the only way to exit is swimming against the strong current – a natural advantage for the fishermen, but also the biggest danger to their lives. Many have drowned despite being skilful swimmers.

During the wet season, fish from further north migrate downstream to Cambodia and Vietnam, passing Si Phan Don. It is a bounteous time for local fishermen, with millions of fish caught in their nets and traps. The majority of the catch is transported to Pakse, the provincial capital, while the remainder carries on to Thailand.

“In June, July and August, it’s the best catch. Around December, the fish go back to Laos, so there is a lot of fish again,” Newachiti said, adding that in each of those four months, fishermen can make several hundred dollars. “The rest of the year, the fish are very small; too small to be sold. So there is no income, and if I catch any, I keep them for my family.”

Soon, however, his nets might be empty, even during the wet season.

Laos expects the Don Sahong dam to be completed by 2018. Environmentalists and scientists say the development will cause vast and irrevocable damage to the area and have a negative effect on the lives of millions of people in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The Don Sahong… will block migratory fish, which is 70% of Mekong fish, from swimming upstream and downstream in the only channel that allows the fish to reach the upper part of the Mekong,” said Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia program director at advocacy group International Rivers.

By stopping most fish from being able to migrate, the dam will greatly reduce their numbers in the Mekong and also impact the potential catch for local fishermen, Trandem added.

The dam will block 70% of Mekong fish from the only channel that allows them to reach the upper part of the river.

Research and advocacy have done nothing to change Laos’ stance on damming the Mekong. In a 2007 letter to the Laos government, 34 international scientists warned of the dam’s impact, saying that it would “far exceed the net return from the project” and that it was not in the best interests of the region’s people.

“Even more to the point: The location of this proposed dam is probably the worst possible place to site a [256] megawatt project since it is the point of maximum concentration of fish migration in the river that supports the world’s largest freshwater fishery,” the letter reads.

Laos never responded to the letter, and media requests for comment have been left unanswered.

Several hundred meters from the dam site, 11 Irrawaddy dolphins have found a natural habitat for themselves. The freshwater dolphin, which is teetering on the brink of extinction, is a major tourist attraction. In small boats, tourists are taken to the area to watch the gentle creatures go about their daily business. Every other minute, one of the short-beaked dolphins emerges to take a breath. Watching them is soothing, even for Kem At, who navigates one of the tour boats. “They don’t jump, but everybody likes them,” he smiles.

The 95,000 truckloads of sediment that will have to be removed to build the dam, however, will change the hydrological balance of the Mekong – a change the dolphins would not be able to adapt to, according to Trandem. “The dolphins are extremely sensitive, so these changes will likely lead to their extinction. Definitely for the area, and possibly for the whole river,” she said.

Mega First Corporation, the Malaysian company in charge of constructing and operating the dam, has dismissed such concerns. According to Yeong Chee Neng, the director of the dam project, the critics are simply wrong and the dam would in fact benefit the region. “It will be better because the dam will make it possible for fish to swim up and down, and that has been proven by our consultants and experts,” Chee Neng said, adding that fish would use the passages the company intends to build on nearby channels.

However, the creation of new fish passages has never been attempted on this scale before, and there is no scientific evidence that supports the claim that fish would migrate through alternate channels – the greatest concern of those opposed to the dam.

Most of the fishermen of Si Phan Don are sceptical of the plans, too. Thong Nhiem, whose family have lived in the same house for generations – a house packed to the rafters with homemade fishing nets and tools to fix his boat – said that he doesn’t know what to believe. Much has been said since Laos first spoke of building nine dams on the mainstream Mekong more than 20 years ago.

“I spoke to the people who live on the islands next to the dam site. They said that the company has told them that it won’t be a problem. They said that the fish will just use another channel,” Nhiem said. “In my village, 80% of the families fish. We will have to wait and see.”

Fishing in the waterfalls, Nhiem said, is a dangerous life, and not a profession he would choose. If his nets were left empty due to the dam, however, he said he would be forced to migrate to Thailand to find employment. “Or maybe we can find work with the dam company,” he said. 

Cutting it fine: Newachiti Kamla and his son Bun prepare bamboo sticks at their home to make a fishing trap
Trouble brewing

Cambodians living along the Mekong River and its multitude of tributaries have a bone to pick with Goh Nan Kioh. After making millions selling Angkor Beer to Cambodians, the Malaysian businessman – who is the director of Cambrew, Cambodia’s largest brewery – is now heading up a very different project in Laos that will affect their livelihoods.

Mega First Corporation, the Malaysian firm responsible for the construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam, has confirmed that Goh also serves as their executive chairman. “Yes, he is the same Mr Goh for Cambrew,” said Khoo Teng Keat, executive director for Mega First, adding that Goh is not the only investor of Cambrew. “Cambrew is 50% owned by Carlsberg. [Goh] is a director but he doesn’t deal with the day-to-day management of Cambrew.”

Danish beer manufacturer Carlsberg declined to comment.

Staff of Cambrew and Mega First may not see any irony in Goh’s dual ventures, but a commune chief in Stung Treng – the Cambodian province less than a kilometre away from the dam site – put it more bluntly.

“One hand is producing beer to destroy our Cambodian health, while the other hand is building the dam that will destroy our fishery sectors,” said Siek Mekong.

Because of this apparent hypocrisy, Siek Mekong has called for a boycott of Angkor Beer among his constituents.

Mega First has repeatedly declined to provide the dam’s environmental impact assessment report.

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