Don Sahong Dam Dooms Irrawaddy Dolphins, Fledgling Cambodia Eco-tourism Industry

One of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong winds its way through the steaming jungles and historic heartlands of Southeast Asia, boasting an ecosystem whose natural wealth is rivalled only by the almighty Amazon.

Perhaps the most famous resident of this mighty waterway is the Mekong River or Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), one of the rarest in the world. As many as 80 of these now Critically Endangered mammals have made the pools of the Mekong their home. If you’re fortunate enough to spot them, and you approach quietly enough, you can actually hear the Mekong dolphins breathing through their blowholes.

But that may be about to change, as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns in a new video about the proposed damming and construction of a 280Mw hydroelectric power station on a tributary of the Mekong River at Hou Xangpheuak in Lao PDR.

Chhith Sam Ath, WWF-Cambodia country director, says the risks to the area 1.5km (0.94 miles) from the Cambodia-Laos border are fourfold:

  1. Construction will involve the blasting of millions of tons of rock from the site: “This will interrupt the habitat and breeding habits of the four remaining dolphins in the transboundary pool,” says Chhith Sam Ath.
  2. Building the dam will block migration channels for more than 500 species of fish.
  3. Alterations in water quality and levels across the Mekong basin will fundamentally alter the fishes’ natural habitat.
  4. The overall impact on fisheries (US$1.4 billion – $3.9 billion will be lost in fishery yields every year) and eco-tourism communities will decimate local livelihoods, potentially for generations to come.

The WWF wants more environmental impact studies carried out and analysed in downstream countries, including Cambodia, and has called on both the Laotian government and Malaysia’s Mega First Corp to halt construction of the Don Sahong Dam.

Fish Will Find A Way

However, in a video posted to YouTube in July 2014 by Mega First Corp, the company that controls a 70 per cent stake in the dam project insists ‘fish will find a way’. Mega First Corp claims to have studied fish migration over several years and says the 30- to 32-metre-high (98-105 ft) Don Sahong Dam will have ‘no significant impact’ on the environment or annual migration routes. The video also cites local fishermen, who say that fishing has become less viable over the past five years.

Fish Will Find a Way claims a video produced by Mega First Corp on the Don Sahong hydroelectric dam project.


Bounthavy Chanthavong, a fisherman and rice farmer from Ban Nakasang in Southern Laos, says: “Our family has been in the fish trade for more than 10 years, but rice farming is still our primary job. Over the last four or five years, the number of fish has declined. This is due to more sophisticated and unorthodox fishing methods, including electric shock, that disrupt the natural cycle.”

Another fisherman, Kham Vongkhampiu from Ban Hua Sadam, says: “Frankly, fishing is very limited now. We just can’t get enough fish to feed our family. There’s not enough for us to sell.”

The Mega Corp video, on which comments have been disabled, makes no mention of the Irrawaddy dolphins, in particular the destruction of habitat that will occur as a result of the Don Sahong Dam being built.

Cambodia Eco-tourism

In recent years, a fledgling eco-tourism industry has sprung up downstream of the proposed Don Sahong Dam to cater to the increasing number of environmentally conscious tourists hopeful of catching a glimpse of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

Phoy Vanna, a member of the Preah Romkel eco-tourism community in Cambodia’s Steung Treung province, tells the WWF: “With river dolphins here in my village, there are tourists coming to watch them. I am able to keep my family here and provide for them by doing this business. Before this I was actually very poor. Now I can save enough money to send my children to school. Since our ancestors’ time, we always depend on this river. We use the water for drinking and watering our crops. I know there are benefits from the dam, but I think it doesn’t balance the loss that we will suffer.”

Don Bann, a river guard on the Cambodian side of the border, echoes his concerns, telling the WWF: “As soon as the Don Sahong dam is built, this community will lose the benefits from the river. Once we lose the river dolphins, we lose the revenue that these dolphins bring in… We have tried to negotiate with the dam builders so that they respect our livelihood, but if they don’t halt the construction of the dam, we lose our way of life.”


Video uploaded to YouTube by WWF-Cambodia

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Laura Snook

Laura Snook

Laura J Snook’s byline has appeared in everything from the UK’s Daily Telegraph to Bizarre magazine, via stints at Motor Cycle News and BBC Top Gear.

She now lives in Cambodia, where she has owned and edited several international publications since 2009.

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