As the helicopter carrying the BBC film crew peeled away from the 33m Khone Phapheng Falls in southern Laos, I held my breath at the enormity of the image – the wild perspective. It was only then one could appreciate the courage and skill of the Laos fishermen featured in the broadcaster’s story. Like performers in the Cirque du Soleil, they traversed on the tiniest of wires the water being thrashed up by the departing aircraft’s rotors – but there were no safety nets here. Fishermen told me they rarely found the remains of those who fell.
Despite the dangers, this intrinsic part of Laos culture – the fishermen, their age-old system of fishing rights, the temples and ceremonies, not to mention the income that went with each year’s fish harvest – will likely soon be history.
The area preceding the falls is a water world of islands known as Siphandone (lit. ‘Four Thousand Islands’) where saffron-clad monks perch on motorbikes crossing between islands on ferries, and where children learn to use nets or set fish traps.
Travellers flock there to take in the beauty, the car-free islands and products of combustion from certain plants. On the banks, a whole industry is devoted to fish. A stern, elderly woman thumps her stick impatiently when fish don’t meet her restaurant’s needs.
Fish are the major protein and micronutrient source for the millions of poor in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. At meal times, they don’t nip into the local fishmonger’s but instead take a canoe and either a static or cantilevered net or trap, and catch their own. Mekong fishermen are like those in the two thirds of the rest of the world – largely landless and poor.
On a previous visit to the area I watched as Madame Nouk tossed tiny silver fish into a tub of salt. Her village on Don Sahong (Sahong Island) in southern Laos was within earshot of the roar from nearby Khone Falls. This is where ‘Mother Mekong’ (Ma Khong) thunders in a wild amphitheatre of rocks, flowing into neighbouring Cambodia.
Nouk sandwiched the remaining fish into bamboo frames. Delicious when smoked they sold for 5,000 Laos kip (around 40p) a frame. While the international focus is on iconic species like the giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin living in the Veun Nyang/Anlong Cheuteal pool below the falls, it’s fish such as these that are the mainstay of family economies and women’s income here. Behind her, the family shrine was festooned with offerings to the spirits to tempt a favourable fish harvest.
Her husband, Mister Hok, standing ankle deep in the shallow channel, was repairing the family ly (a ski jump-style fish trap). In the following weeks, the rains upstream would raise the water level some two metres. His ly and accompanying fishing rights were part of his family legacy.
Fish, triggered by the rising water level, following instincts as old as the Mekong itself, would soon battle their way upstream to mate and feed. ‘I can catch almost a tonne a day,’ Hok told me proudly. ‘One good season and I have enough to educate my children.’
Paths of Destruction
This channel, known as Hou Sahong, was passable all year round. An estimated 86 per cent of Mekong fish would bypass the thundering falls and travel up- and down-stream here twice a year. Unlike the nearby but shallower Hou Sadam, it was passable even in the longest dry season.
Today, however, the two channels have been obstructed by massive construction excavations for a dam set to yield a relatively paltry 260MW of power. It’s relatively small by dam standards but the power produced would be enough to supply approximately 200,000 homes in a first-world, Western setting. The lower consumption levels of the Laos region would mean it would stretch much further though.
Eyewitness reports say that Nouk’s village, their fishing grounds and temple have been blasted out of existence. The channel, thought to be too shallow to support a head of water deep enough to drive the turbines during the dry season, was dynamited after the ly were disassembled. The nearly two kilometre hard-rock excavation produced over 1.5 million tonnes of spoil, shattering village lives and diminishing the food source (links to scientific papers on this here and here) for the dolphins.
‘The villagers have been relocated – which leads to the loss of communication between Cambodia’s and Laos’s people, their traditions, beliefs, religion and identity,’ writes Chum Huor in an email. Along with his twin brother Chum Huot, Huor was arrested in January while filming construction of the dam. The hou is now is obstructed by a coffer dam according to another eyewitness in just the last week. The people have been moved to houses with little access to water in the islands north. They have to pay for the electricity and their traps and nets have been banned, the government saying they are ‘environmentally destructive’.
Over 70 large dams are planned for the Mekong and its tributaries. Already fish losses in major tributaries like the Nam Ou are causing hardship and hunger. Some estimate people living along the river each consume around 60kg of fish per year and at least 40 million people depend on the silt and the fish carried with the Mekong’s ebbs and flows.
It’s feared by many that the Don Sahong dam will sever the river’s reproductive lifeline, spelling an end to the majority of wild fish living in this vital and productive waterway.
Many would argue that the power is not needed, so why the eco-destruction? Siphandone is the fiefdom of the previous President Khamtay Siphandone, who takes his name from the area, and whose son-in-law is said to be the behind-the-scenes manager for the controversial dam. Several weeks ago Khamtay’s son, Sonexay, who has been elevated to Vice Prime Minister, announced the development of two economic zones in the Champassak province above where the falls are situated. The goal is to encourage overseas investment into the region, especially from wealthier Asian nations.
Mega First Berhad, a Malaysian development company, was granted the original concession. Investigation showed it had no experience in hydropower, instead having worked in oil turbines, ticketing and tourism services... and ladies’ underwear. MFB’s men, touted as environmental experts, did not hold up to scrutiny. One claimed a PhD from James Cook University in Australia. ‘We can find no trace of his enrolment,’ wrote Professor Jeff Sayer of JCU’s College of Marine & Environmental Sciences. The other, Dr. Greg Weary, was spotted on a mercenary website. MFB conducts its own monitoring of the construction and no independent scientists have been allowed in the area for nearly two years. Along with MFB’s involvement, Chinese hydropower giant Sinohydro has been revealed as being the major construction contractor.
Controversy surrounds the alternative migratory channel Hou Sadam which has also undergone major earthworks. While local eyewitnesses infer that it too is blocked by roads, Laos government and company representatives deny this. But due to lack of transparency and access difficulties, it is hard to verify who is right.
In the face of international and local pressures, the government of Laos stubbornly denied the pace of the work and anticipated consequences – typically stone-walling against regional protests. Fisheries experts scoff at the Laos government’s reassurance about fish ladders. ‘Can a buffalo climb a fire escape? Some of the surviving catfish weigh 200 kilos,’ one fish expert told me.
The government argues that the fish will find another way. Which might be true if they survive the turbines. Dave Fitch, a freshwater fisheries expert, remarked that ‘the trouble with hydrodams is that they mimic rapids, so fish are drawn to the turbine activity and end up like cat food.’
Development experts suggest that at least 340,000 head of cattle are needed to make up the protein deficit from fisheries. But that presupposes available land, fishers undergoing retraining, having capital, veterinary services and distribution systems, none of which exist now.
‘We want the world to know the Don Sahong Dam construction will spell disaster to 60 million people’s livelihoods, especially the six million people in the immediate Mekong area,’ writes Chum Hout. ‘There is too much to lose and the Laos government’s ears are closed. It doesn’t care about our friends and their communities, the culture, the boat traffic to markets.’
Some say it’s too late, that the damage is done. Others, like International Rivers, an American NGO dedicated to halting destructive river projects, are still trying to negotiate a settlement and code of conduct with Sinohydro. But the Laos government is stubborn and there is a lot of money to be made from hydropower.