In a recent post on The Interpreter I noted that there was now no doubt the the Lao Government is committed to the construction of the Don Sahong dam in the far south of Laos. It will be the second dam built on the mainstream of the Mekong River below China (after the dam now under construction at Xayaburi).

This proposed dam has been a matter of controversy for many years, a fact reflected in an open letter to the Lao Government in 2007 signed by 34 scientists under the auspices of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney. The letter lists a number of scientific studies pointing to the dangers to fish migration through the Khone Falls from construction of a dam. A more readily accessible scientific set of arguments against the dam was prepared by the WorldFish Center in 2007, while a more recent article by Ian Baird in Critical Asian Studies in 2011 examines the issue in considerable detail.

Further evidence of the Lao Government's intention to press ahead with the dam at Don Sahong is provided by information from AECOM, engineering consultants to the lead construction firm, Mega First Corporation Berhad (MFCB) of Malaysia, and by the news that SMEC New Zealand is involved in consulting to MFCB. As stated on SMEC NZ's website:

The 260MW Don Sahong Hydropower Project is among the first of a number of run-of-river hydropower projects proposed for development on the Mekong River. SMEC New Zealand is assisting the Project Developer, MFCB, with a range of engineering and advisory tasks geared towards obtaining approvals and finalising arrangements in preparation for calling Engineering, Procurement and Construction tenders. SMEC's services include engineering inputs to support the environmental approvals and MRC prior notification process, and completion of power purchase and concession agreements.

SMEC NZ is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian-based engineering and development consultancy SMEC, which has its origins in the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.

So far as I am aware, this is the first instance in the post-Vietnam War period that an organisation with links to Australia has become directly involved in activities associated with the construction of dams on the lower Mekong. Previously, Australian firms and organisations have been involved in environmental assessments.

The Lao Government is following the same procedure as it did in relation to Xayaburi by leaving notification of its intentions to the Mekong River Commission until after it has decided to undertake construction at Don Sahong. The Lao Government on 3 October did notify the MRC of its intention to build the dam, but this belated action appears to fall short of the requirements under the 1995 Mekong River Agreement that members should consult with each other before embarking on action that could affect member interests.

There are recent indications that the Lao Government has now also made clear its intentions to Thailand and Vietnam, though curiously not to Cambodia (it has claimed that the projected dam 'would have no impact on the river downstream').

It will be up to commentators with the technical and scientific knowledge I do not possess to comment further on developments, but it is hard not to conclude that, with the construction of the Don Sahong dam now apparently certain to take place, fresh concerns are being raised about the Mekong's role as a major source of fish for the large population living along the river.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.