Vientiane Times November 15, 2013
The Don Sahong Hydropower Project in southern Laos is surrounded by “myths” being perpetuated by people who don’t understand the details of the project, according to an international expert employed by the project developers.
The Don Sahong project will not flood an extensive area; it will not block the mainstream of the Mekong River; it will not significantly reduce the fertility of the river, nor will it block all fish migration or devastate the population of Irrawaddy dolphins, said the project’s Senior Environmental Manager Dr Peter Hawkins. Another myth is that environmental impacts cannot be mitigated when, in fact, they can by using other natural channels adjacent to the Hou Sahong where the dam will be built.
Dr Hawkins said many of the myths stem from a letter written by a group of scientists back in 2007, which contains outdated information and numerous inaccuracies. Information from the report has been repeated by anti-dam organisations and picked up by news media, which have added to the misperceptions.
He spoke to Vientiane Times during a site visit to the project this week. “A myth is something that many people believe but is not actually true. It’s wrong, it’s false,” he told local and international news media.
“These are modern myths,” Dr Hawkins said. “They come principally from a group of scientists who wrote open letters about the Don Sahong dam back in 2007. They made a number of statements which have been repeated by different environmental groups and then by newspapers.”
“One of the statements that I want to challenge and correct, for example, is that the dam will flood an extensive area upstream. This is simply not true.”
Dr Hawkins said Don Sahong island is 5km long and the embankment is 3.5km long. The total additional land that will be flooded by the dam is 125 hectares, not kilometres. This is a very, very small footprint for the typical hydropower dam project on the Mekong.
“Another myth, and this has been repeated many times, is that the dam will devastate the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. There is an isolated group of these dolphins, the most recent count is six, in a pool in Cambodia downstream of the project.”
“People say this dolphin is sensitive to silt and that we will drive them away. Anyone who knows the Mekong knows the silt concentration varies greatly over the period of a year. We plan to minimise the silt,” Dr Hawkins said.
Other myths, also false, are that the proposed Don Sahong dam will block the mainstream of the Mekong River; reduce the fertility of the Mekong delta; and block the passage of 70 percent of Mekong fish, he added.
“One of the reasons why these myths about the project are growing is because the correct information has not been available, but that has changed in the last month and a half. All of the environmental and engineering documents are now available on the Mekong River Commission website,” he said.
Meanwhile, Project Director Mr Yeong Chee Meng was very confident there would be minimal impact on the environment and said perhaps the only issue to be addressed was fish migration.
“After seven years of studies, we are very confident that it can be easily mitigated… as we have demonstrated in three of the fish passage trials we have done. We are committed to making sure that fish passage will be more than compensated by the new channels we will create,” he said.
Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines, Mr Viraphonh Viravong, said the Lao government vowed to build the dam in a responsible manner by hiring foreign experts. He said the government will ensure the project has no negative impacts downstream. If this is not the case people living upstream will be affected first.
Mr Viraphonh said the recent site visit was an example of how the Lao government has been open and forthright in inviting concerned parties to see the site, making information about the project available to them and answering all of their questions.