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The Dammed Don: Lao hydropower project pushes ahead despite alarm from scientists

  • Plans call for the Don Sahong dam to be built at a key channel for migratory fish species. Experts fear its construction could drastically reduce the Mekong’s fish population.
  • Laos is moving forward with construction plans, despite protests from scientists, conservationists and other Mekong countries.
  • The dam will be built by foreign companies and managed through a private joint venture in which Laos’ state-owned electricity company has only a minority stake.

Snaking down the length of the Mekong River the beautifully detailed map looks strikingly like those marking the distribution of unexploded ordnance in Laos.

The red dots that pockmark the course of the river, from its origins in the highlands of China to its outlet in Southern Vietnam, do mark existing or potential destruction; each indicates a place where a hydropower dam has been constructed or is proposed. Not bombs, but potentially just as destructive for the communities, cultures, forests and fish upon which these riparian nations depend. A back-of-the envelope calculation based on numbers in official reports suggests that 110,000 people have already been relocated to make way for dams in Laos. The actual number may well be higher.

It seems everyone wants a piece of this river and its tributaries, in particular in Laos where as many as a hundred and forty dams are planned.

A growing body of research most pungently a report from Oxford university and another by Chiang Rai academic Richard Frankel, currently in press, indicate that large hydropower dams are unsuitable for the twenty first century, with unacceptably high greenhouse gas emissions and poor economic returns. This news must fall like clods on the ears of Laos’ and China’s so-called “hydro-lords,” who promote hydro-dams as the modern, clean and green way to bring energy and wealth to this small and vulnerable nation, where the right to protest does not exist.

Khone Phapheng in Champassak Province in Southern Laos is by some measures the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. Photo by Nancy Butler.

Falls and Fish Tales

Khone Phapheng in southern Laos are the most dramatic waterfalls in Southeast Asia. The Mekong plunges over a thirty-five-meter fault line into bordering Cambodia. While Thai tourists take pouting selfies, behind them fishermen traverse the thundering face of the falls on spidery wires their skill and frailty both breathtaking.

Small shrines trade flowers, incense and beer for a good catch. In 2010 a fisherman confided: “When I was young, we’d make a fire next to the river, drink beer and sleep. When we woke, the pan would be full of fish. We don’t raise the fish, the fish raise us.”

The lacework of islands separated by foaming channels (hou) and wetlands adjacent to the falls is known literally as Four Thousand Islands, (Si Phan Done) a 14-kilometer (8.5 mile)-wide cataract that defeated early French explorers. Home to communities whose lineage and traditions are defined by fishing, one major channel (hou) is being transformed into a 360 megawatt dam.

The dam wall – said to be a mere 32 meters (105 feet) – is small compared to other dams planned for the region — as is the output. So why the outcry? It comes down to the Don Sahong’s sensitive location, blocking what has arguably been the only year-round fish navigable channel through that pinch-point that is the Khone Phapeng in the Mekong.

The Mekong is a nose behind the Amazon as the world’s most prolific inland fishery. But systematic land and water grabbing in Laos have contributed to multi-generational undernutrition and continually low nutritional standards. Traditionally Lao, particularly upland people, depended on rivers and forests for food. Forest loss and emptying rivers have limited food options for cash poor women, and people dependent on wild nutrients.

Scientists argue about the exact number of fish species, but around 850 have been identified, and there’s no doubt that around 70 percent of the 40 million people in the Lower Mekong Basin rely to some extent on the Mekong for food and income. Wild fish and other aquatic animals and plants make up over 80 percent of the animal protein the local populations consume. Fish scientists Eric Baran and Blake Ratner of World Fish in Cambodia estimate wild fish capture in the Mekong Basin nets around $2 billion per year.

Baran and Ian Baird report that eighty six percent of Mekong fish are migratory, and in one of those wonderful natural synergies, around eighty six percent of those migrate via the Hou Sahong (Sahong Channel) twice a year to feed and spawn.

Drone imagery shows Hou Sahong now blocked by coffer dams pending final closure. Sahong and the adjacent Saddam island look devastated, with many villages’ trees and rice fields gone. A Sahong Island farmer who goes by Aunty Wen claimed her promised compensation hadn’t appeared. “They planted sticks (survey pegs) in my rice. Then trucks destroyed most of it,” she told Mongabay by phone.

A man checks his nets at sunset in Siphandone. Photo by Melody Kemp.

There is some disagreement about the fate of the sixteen to eighteen extended families who once lived along hou Sahong and how they will survive. The iconic louang khang li trap, the long-time target of government ire, is now completely banned. In a phone interview, a river guide who asked to be referred to as Mr. Phong, explained without irony that all traps have “been banned as bad for the environment.”

“We used to be able to live well by catching a few really big fish that we would sell for 45,000 kip (US$5.50) per kilo,” Mr. Phong said. Now, people and communities are struggling to find stable incomes.

Iconic Irrawaddy dolphins were recently declared functionally extinct in the pools below the dam site. Some blame the excessive noise from barges bringing cement to the dam site but gill nets are the major culprit. Wildlife law enforcement in Laos is lax when it comes to destructive fishing methods, Crispian Barlow, adviser on law enforcement to WWF, told Mongabay. He concluded that the loss of dolphins, combined with the reduced flow to the falls reduced any tourist potential to virtually zero. The increased risk of schistosomiasis due to changes in river and thus vector ecology add to this threat.

Despite the arguments, officials remain adamant about the need for hydropower. According to minutes from a meeting in which Bourgriorg, Director General of the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, gave a presentation, the Lao government argues that hydropower is superior to other forms of renewable energy. “Solar has more negative consequences than hydropower, consuming three times more land, and is not available at night,” he reportedly said.

In stark contrast to the government’s insistence that these dams will be profitable, Bourgriorg went on to request international aid to build fish ladders and to train staff in the crucial process of scouring accumulated sediment deposits from reservoirs. “We are engineers and do not have training in sediment flushing,” he was recorded as saying.

Throw-net fishing on the Mekong River in Laos. Around 70 percent of the 40 million people living in the Mekong Basin derive at least a portion of their food and income directly from the river.Photo by Nancy Butler.

Diminishing returns.

A successful dam is defined as one that allows 95 percent of migrating fish to successfully pass up and down the river. Fisheries expert Ashley Halls‘ modelling of the effects of dams on the Mekong mainstream indicate that this figure cannot be achieved. Instead, he predicts the most vulnerable fish species could see their populations cut in half within two years if they are forced to migrate via the maw of just one dam. For some species, Hall’s model predicts that when fish must traverse two or more dams to successfully breed, their long-term chances of survival is zero.

‘The Don Sahong’s turbines are, I’m told, huge, like giant propellers (not the jet-engine style of… Xayaburi), that… slowly rotate as the river flows through them, so slowly, the DSPC fish expert [said] fish can [easily] swim through … I haven’t seen them… so can’t say how true or not this is.” Kim Geheb, director of CGIAR’s Water Land and Ecosystems Greater Mekong Office in Vientiane told Mongabay by email.

At a November 2016 meeting to discuss hydroelectric dam mitigation, Martin Mallen-Cooper gave a very explicit presentation: fish ladders – the mitigation technique Laos appears to be counting on — usually do not work for high dams,  are never enough to secure viable fish population in tropical rivers, and turbines are never ‘fish friendly.’ Rotation speed is incidental. The killers are sudden pressure changes extruding both fish eyes and bladders, he explained. Geheb agreed that dams and fish are now mutually exclusive.

Baran, who also attended the meetings, emailed: “Mitigation, if any, of the effects on fish migrations in the most intensive freshwater fishery in the world lies in the hands of consultants working for [dam management company Don Sahong Power Company (DSPC)], without any control or oversight by any institution nor scientific organization.” Of the meetings, he added, “nothing new or of interest was made public.”

While DSPC have deepened and widened other channels, Brian Eyler from the Stimson Institute said it’s far too early to say this will help fish populations survive. “Laos should have waited at least one migratory season to see if the channel widening and mitigation… worked,” he told Mongabay by email. “What’s going on now is a total gamble.”

Fishermen casting nets into the maw of the Khone Phapaeng often lose their lives on the slippery rocks. Photo by Melody Kemp.


In 2009-2010 the Hanoi-based International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM), in their Strategic Management Plan for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) recommended a ten year moratorium on all Mekong mainstream dam development, based on extensive periods of research and consultation during which “… [most] individuals, divested national interests and allegiances, agreed that damming the mainstream was not desirable until the science of the Lower Mekong Basin is better understood.”

ICEM’s recommendations were disregarded.

Since construction began at Don Sahong, independent scientists report being excluded from the area. “Our collaborative research with World Fish on localized fish migration was not permitted,” Jeremey Carew Reid, director of ICEM, said from Hanoi.

In 2014, the MRC held a regional meeting on the Don Sahong project, part of a Procedure for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement Process (PNPCA) required under the Mekong Agreement. During the meeting, they heard high-level protests from Laos’ riparian neighbors and the eloquent disagreement of scientists. Nonetheless, the dam was approved. “For the development of the Mekong River, we don’t need consensus,” Daovong Phonekeo, Director General of Laos’ Department of Energy Policy and Planning, told Voice of America.

The Lao government bypassed accepted MRC mediated consultancy procedures governing dam construction on the Mekong mainstream, claiming the Don Sahong as a “tributary” dam, thus requiring no consultation with regional governments. If the dam was found to be destructive, Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’s Deputy Minister Energy and Mines told querulous Mekong delegations, “You just blast the dam and it becomes another natural waterfall.

After almsgiving, monks go to fish as they are prohibited from eating after 12 pm. Photo by Melody Kemp.

Follow the Money

Khone Phapeng, a globally significant riparian hot spot has been entrusted to a Malaysian/ Chinese company, Mega First Corporation Berhad, which had no previous dam-building experience. Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, in turn, was awarded a $720 million contract to carry out the design and construction work.

The project will be managed via a complex, multi-layered chain of subsidiary companies – a structure that casts doubt on any potential economic returns for the Lao people. The first layer is the Don Sahong Holdings Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mega First. That subsidiary has two wholly-owned subsidiaries of its own: Ground Roses Ltd. (GRL) and Silver Acreage Ltd. All three subsidiary companies are registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven that allows directors and any potential beneficial owners to shield their identities.

In March 2015, the company announced that Ground Roses and Silver Acreage would form a joint venture with state-utility Électricité du Laos (EDL) to develop and implement the project. According to company documents, this joint venture, a private company registered in Laos as the Don Sahong Power Company Limited (DSPC), would be owned 20 percent by Électricité du Laos, while Ground Roses and Silver Acreage would hold 79 percent and 1 percent, respectively. In September 2015, DSPC signed a 25-year concession agreement with the Lao Government, in which EDL agreed to buy electricity generated by the dam.

Baird wrote in Regional Outlook: Southeast Asia 2011-2012 that the dam’s “behind the scenes project manager” is the son-in-law of Khamtay Siphandone, the former president of Laos and a politburo stalwart. “The Siphandone family is expected to gain significant benefits if the project moves ahead,” Baird wrote, adding that the family has used its influence to curtail open debate about the project’s impact. Sonexay, Khamtay’s son, at that time Champassak Provincial Governor, now deputy Prime Minister, used his position to warn that “criticism of the project would not be tolerated.”

In May 2016, the Vientiane Times reported Sonexay Siphandone announcing the development of tourism and industrial infrastructure north of the dam – one of a series of projects in Champassak that would likely benefit from a nearby power plant.

Riverboats moored along the shores of the Mekong River in Laos. The river is still an essential means of transport for many of the Mekong Basin’s inhabitants. Photo by Nancy Butler.

Best Laid Plans

Is there a Plan B if fish numbers rapidly diminish? It seems unlikely. Stuart Orr and colleagues argued the impossibility of suddenly converting the food security of 12 million households in the Lower Mekong Basin from fish based protein to, say, livestock. A sentiment echoed by livestock specialist  John Kingston, retired after six years in the region. “It’s impossible. There isn’t the land, water or skill to suddenly change food production patterns.”

What happens if the Chinese economy continues slow down, leaving the dam uncompleted, or if China’s newfound zeal to uncover money laundering smells a rat? Thailand changed their mind about purchasing a share of the energy, leaving only Cambodia as a potential customer.  Although Cambodia, whose Tonle Sap fishery depends on an intact Mekong, has been a noisy opponent of the project, it has also expressed interest in buying electricity from it since Prime Minister Hun Sen visited the site.

Then there is climate change. An El Nino inspired extended drought may be a portent of things to come. Significant concentrations of industrial pollutants, including methyl mercury from the dam itself, limit possibilities of farmed fish.

In 2010 when the dam’s possibility was first announced, Mr. Phong told said villagers were told they could have refrigerators and TVs when the dam was built. He spat over the side of his boat, “What use are they. How can we pay for the electricity if we have no fish to sell. How can we live with nothing to eat?”