Cambodia voices opposition to Laos dam construction

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia has voiced opposition to neighboring Southeast Asian country Laos' planned construction of an enormous hydropower dam on their border, which watchdogs say could lead to tremendous environmental damage and the decimation of a rare breed of dolphin.

Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor is reported to have asked Laos at a weekend summit in Vietnam to study and research the environmental impact of the Don Sahong dam.

"[They can then] send the results of the research to the member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in six months, before it starts to build the dam,” The Cambodia Daily reported the minister as saying Monday.

The MRC works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam on joint management of shared water resources and sustainable development of the Mekong River.

The river - Southeast Asia’s longest waterway - begins in China and twists about 2,703 miles (4,350 km) southeast through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Around 60 million people rely on it for their livelihoods and survival.

Environmental groups say the 256-megawatt dam - to be built by Malaysian company Mega First Berhad - will have a drastic impact on fish migration, food stability and the already dwindling population of Irrawaddy dolphins.

Laos, however, claims it will provide the region with much-needed electricity.

The Irrawaddy dolphin can grow up to 8 feet in length and lives in estuaries, large rivers, and freshwater lagoons in southeast and south Asia. Earlier this year, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) said the dam would likely lead to the extinction of the dolphin of which there are only about 85 left in the Mekong.

The dolphin - said to be related to killer whales - occupies a 118-mile (190-km) stretch near where Lao is planning on building dam. A WWF paper says that construction will involve the dynamiting of millions of tons of rock, which will create sound waves strong enough to kill the dolphins. 

WWF-Cambodia’s Country Director Chhith Sam Ath said late February that plans to construct the dam in a channel immediately upstream from the dolphins "will likely hasten their disappearance from the Mekong.”

Last week, hundreds of Cambodians protested against the dam across the country, saying it would negatively impact their livelihoods. Both Thailand and Vietnam have also voiced concern about the impacts of the dam on the region’s fisheries.

Environmental group International Rivers has said that the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments hadn’t pushed hard enough at the summit.

“While International Rivers is pleased that Mekong leaders recognize the negative environmental and social impacts that hydropower development poses to the mainstream, we are disappointed that leaders did not condemn the current rush of dam building on the Mekong mainstream,” Southeast Asia Program Director Ame Trandem said in a weekend statement

“Words without actions are meaningless; the Lao government must stop its free reign of Mekong mainstream dam building,” she said.

While some work on the dam has already begun, Laos has said it will forge ahead with full construction in December.

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