Laos’ new hydropower project on the Mekong will likely kill off an endangered species of dolphin and do further damage to Vietnam's delta region, which is already reeling from the effects of Chinese dams.
Vietnamese officials and experts raised these and other environmental concerns at meeting on Tuesday in the delta’s An Giang Province.
Nguyen Thanh Hai, a spokesman from the Mekong Delta Steering Committee, said China's operation of four of its eight planned upstream dams have already brought salinization and erosion to Vietnam.
More projects in Laos and Cambodia will further threaten the river and the 60 million people who live along it, Hai said.
Though the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam is rather small compared to the US$3.8-billion Xayaburi dam that Laos began building in November 2012, experts say it will do more ecological damage due to its planned location in the heart of a migratory fish pathway -- roughly two kilometers from Cambodia and 420 kilometers from Vietnam.
The Hou Sahong, the main tributary to the Khone waterfall, serves as the pathway for around 100 migrating fish species every year, experts said.
The dam will block their way and severely threaten food security for Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The dam's construction alone might suffice to kill off the last remaining members of the endangered Irrawadyy dolphin population that lives between Laos and Cambodia.
Nguyen Huu Thien, a researcher who joined an international project on the Mekong River's environment in 2009, said: “It’s frightful reading the study results as a resident of the Mekong Delta.”
Thien said the dam could kill the delta, which was first formed millions of years ago.
The damage, he warned, will be irreparable.
The delta's three biggest threats, Thien maintains, are climate change, water pollution and hydropower dams.
But while climate change has allowed people time to adapt and pollution can be cleaned up, there’s no going back on the dams.
“The dams are a very big threat that will worsen the existing problems,” he said.
Dr Duong Van Ni from Can Tho University in the eponymous town, said the dams will hinder all efforts to deal with climate change in the region.
“While we’re busy adapting to climate change and rising sea levels, the dam will come like a hit to the back of the head. It will be the fatal blow,” Ni said.
China has already built seven dams along the upstream Mekong, within its borders. It has planned and is building 20 others.
Laos and Cambodia have plans for another 11, starting with Xayaburi and now Don Sahong.
The Hanoi-based Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID), the Vietnam Rivers Network and the delta authorities held the Tuesday conference for experts’ insights over the new dam after they gathered unanimous objections from delta farmers during a two-week survey in November.
All of the 758 respondents from the delta’s six provinces strongly objected to the dam.
Pham Minh Hung, chairman of An Giang Farmers’ Association, said they have experienced adverse environmental changes in the past five to seven years.
An Giang is one of several provinces in the delta that enjoys huge fishery resources and other blessings from the annual monsoon flood.
But Hung said the floods have grown milder and brought less fish and other riparian creatures.
He said salinity has affected a quarter of the province’s area -- particularly the communities along the shore.
“Coastal communities are very worried about whether or not 5,000 hectares of dragon fruit will survive,” he said.
Le Thi Nhum, a representative of farmers from Tan Hiep District, Kien Giang, said they enjoy better harvests after the monsoon floods, which carry nutrient-rich alluvium down the Mekong.
They also enjoy better meals and the additional income the fish and shrimp the flood brings with it.
If the dams stop the annual flooding, there won’t be fish, shrimp or good crop yields.
“We can survive without electricity, but without water, we will die,” Nhum said.
Nguy Thi Khanh, director of GreenID, said people are fighting against damming the Mekong dams everywhere.
The Xayaburi dam, which is already 30 percent complete, is facing a Thai lawsuit filed against the banks funding the project.
People in Cambodia have also voiced their objections.
“People are hoping to change things at the last minute,” Khanh said.