Unplugging The ‘Battery’ Of SE Asia: Don Sahong Dam Threatens Food Security In Laos, Vietnam And Cambodia

Via Future Directions International, a look at how construction of the Don Sahong Dam along the Lower Mekong River may exacerbate existing malnutrition in the region and jeopardise the livelihoods of villagers and commercial fishermen:

The government of Laos aims to become the “battery” of South East Asia, by exporting electricity to its neighbours and generating much needed national income. The Don Sahong hydro-project, due to begin in December, will be constructed for this purpose. The project is expected to have a serious impact on the livelihoods of millions of people throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Predicted disruptions to migratory fish patterns will impair the ability of commercial and non-commercial fishermen to earn a living. They will also threaten the food security of a population already at serious risk of malnutrition.


Construction of the Don Sahong Dam in Laos is expected to begin, along the Hou Sahong channel of the Mekong River, in December. The dam will be located less than 2km upstream from the border between Laos and Cambodia. On completion it is expected to generate at least 240 megawatts of power.

The Lao government aims to become the region’s “battery”, by providing electricity to its neighbours who currently experience chronic electricity shortages. The Don Sahong Dam and up to 12 other dams earmarked for construction along the Middle and Lower Mekong River, are together expected to boost the electricity generated in the region by 25 per cent.

While proponents of the project suggest that it will lower electricity costs and only require minimal resettling of villagers, its opponents argue that the project will cause significant harm to 60 million people throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Dr Robert Mather, from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, rates the lower Mekong River as “the most productive inland fishery anywhere in the world”. Many migratory fish species travel hundreds of kilometres in either direction along the Mekong River, sustaining both commercial and non-commercial fishers along the way.

The Hou Sahong is critically important to livelihoods, as it is the only channel that allows year-long migrations both up and downstream. Migratory fish also sustain people employed in further processing the catch (drying and smoking fish and manufacturing fish sauce or animal feed). WorldFish puts the yearly economic impact of the project at around US$200 million.

Inland fish stocks are the most important source of animal protein for many regional rural populations, with yearly per capita consumption estimated at 32.3kg in Cambodia and 24.5kg in Laos. Many of these rural populations are already malnourished. For example, 45 per cent of children under five are underweight in the Stung Trung province of Cambodia and, in rural Laos, a further 50 per cent experience malnutrition. Consequently, disruptions to migratory fish patterns will seriously threaten the food security of many in the region.

The environmental impact assessment for the project proposed a number of mitigation solutions, such as expanding the Hou Xang Pheuak and Hou Sadam (two channels flanking the Hou Sahong) or diverting more water into the Hou Sadam. These proposed solutions, however, would produce other problems, as they would involve diverting water away from the Hou Phapheng, impacting other populations. Further, widening the long and narrow Hou Sadam is likely to be economically infeasible.

Laos is heavily dependent on both foreign aid and foreign investment. The World Bank, in an effort to promote cleaner energy sources, encourages countries such as Laos to construct hydro-projects. With access to food being still precarious in the Mekong region, projects such as the Don Sahong Dam will harm villagers along the river; they rely on what they can catch in the Mekong, both to feed themselves and earn a living. Mitigating the impacts on villagers living both upstream and downstream, should therefore be a high priority when decisions are being made about new large-scale infrastructure projects.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 at 6:09 am and is filed under Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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