By: Tom Fawthrop


In the Mekong River’s 4,800 km journey from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet to Vietnam delta, the Sipandon area in southern Laos stands out as a critical part of the river‘s ecosystem, blessed by raging waterfalls, picturesque islands and a small colony of endangered freshwater dolphins.

Sipandon – meaning 4,000 Islands – is an area of immense biodiversity, ecotourism and abundance of fish migration, but its survival is at serious risk from the hydropower Don Sahong dam, which is on the verge of construction.

“If this special wetlands zone is protected, it could be one of the great wonders of the world”, Carl Grundy-Warr, a geography professor at the National university of Singapore (NUS) told Asia Sentinel.

But instead of signing up to the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands Protected Areas, the Lao government has opted for a dam that will block fish migration through the Sahong channel, bypassing the waterfall at Khone Phapeng.

Hundreds of NGOs object

Mega-First Malaysia, the Malaysia-based co-developer of the 256 mw dam project along with the Laotian government, faces opposition from hundreds of NGOs in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. More than 300,000 people have signed petitions to attempt to stop the dam, and Cambodian communities have staged demonstrations.

Even after calls from Mekong River Commission experts and constant calls by the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam to suspend all construction, however, preparations have steamed ahead. But now there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the 60 million people whose lives depend on a healthy, free-flowing Mekong. Dam construction that had been scheduled to start last month has been delayed.

Mekong specialist Brian Eyler, a deputy director of the Washington, DC-based Stimson Center, views the delay as linked to “a recent flurry of meetings between the governments of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the past two months,” trying to resolve the conflict over dams on the lower Mekong.

A spokesman for the Mekong River Commission confirmed that “the matter is no longer in the hands of the MRC. It’s now in the hands of the governments,” referring to the three member states but without any reported participation by Thailand.

Vientiane Remains Obdurate

Laos has up to now refused all requests from the riparian countries to engage in a joint scientific investigation of dam impacts and trans-boundary studies and suspend or postpone all dam construction on the mainstream river.

Eyler believes the current pause in the dam’s development could be attributed to downstream neighbors putting diplomatic pressure on Laos.

The impact of this projected dam, the Xayaburi dam and nine more scheduled to be built across the Mekong would also have a devastating impact much farther downriver.  Seven dams on the Chinese stretch have already reduced the natural flow of nutrient-rich sediment to the delta, the rice-bowl of Vietnam, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s rice exports.

Research by wetlands specialist Nguyen Huu Thien based in the delta point to a grim future for 18 million people living there.

‘If all 11 dams go ahead on the Mekong, then in 20 years’ time, Vietnam will cease to be a rice exporter,” Thien said in an interview. “The delta will be sinking because the dams upstream will block the sediment. Any delta sinks when it is not replenished by sediment flow.”

If Vietnam is getting tougher with Laos, their long-time Indochina ally, it is hardly surprising. Laos unilaterally proceeded with the construction of the first dam on the lower Mekong – the Xayaburi dam, now 60 percent completed – and brushed aside demands by the riparian countries for comprehensive environmental impact studies.  China’s Sinohydro has contracted to build the dam and has completed a bridge linking the damsite on an island to the mainland.