Monday, October 19, 2009

The dam from Lao's point of view

The ride to Don Sahong to see the Hou Sahong channel (dam site) was quite a trip! The area of the Mekong was empty and quiet - no fisherman out now because it's not quite dry season, another month and the water will below enough for the big fish to be caught again. I am told that the river is packed with fishing boats. But for now, things are still pretty wet and brown, only a few boats show up on the horizon, shuttling people around to different islands. A light drizzle clouds the dotted islands and you can see the silhouette of the hills of Cambodia in the distance.

Mathieu, a Belgian who has lived on Don Det for the last 5 years and is fluent in Lao, is the one who helpd me get all of this done. When I met him and told him I wanted to see the site, he was interested. He said many engineers and government people have been through talking about this dam, and he wanted to know what the deal was with this channel also. So he was eager to organize a trip and get a day off from his busy guest house, Little Eden. He and a friend, Daren (a friend and fellow expat), and I asked a man living nearby to take us across to Don Sahong and show us where the dam would be.

The trip to the proposed site:

As remote as Don Kom is, it has electricity! Because of its high level in relation to other islands, it was the best place to put cell towers, hence the electricity lines. Not even touristy Don Det has electricity 24/7, Don Det only has it via generators (but it should be coming soon, they say).

The man that lived at the south end of this island took us on his small wooden boat over across a confluence of the two biggest channels onto Don Sahong, which is an island that creates the Hou Sahong channel (along with the island, Don Sadam).

We got off the boat on a sandy spit of Don Sahong. As we walked onto the small island, we passed a tiny village of six different families. They lived in bamboo thatched houses, some without walls. They were sitting under their huts avoiding the rain, along with their water buffalo, ducks, and pigs. The whole group looked stunned that we were there on their little island. But I think they have seen more and more outsiders come in and check out this channel.... they are growing more and more aware of something happening here that might mean a move for them, sponsored by the government. This would be a great thing for them - give them new houses and even put them closer to their rice paddies on the adjacent island.

So we walked through the jungle on this island, past some cement spheres for soil samples that have been done already here, to the site of where the dam would be.

The Lao cop asked that I not name him or use his picture in my article, and Mathieu explained that it is because he is a policeman and generally scared of the Lao government. They don't want to be accountable for anything. So that was frustrating since he is one of my few primary sources, but that's just the way it goes.
Using the photo on my blog is fine.

The Lao cop who fishes in the season also, as do most men in this part of Lao, said he welcomes a dam. A dam should mean free electricity for the residents in this area. He thinks a dam (or he was calling it a turbine, I still need to see if it's a dam or a turbine) will not kill too many fish. He thinks that the fish will be able to use many of the other channels in the area when they are migrating up or down. He doesn't mind the dam at all because he will also just move his traps (bamboo traps to catch fish coming back downstream) to a different channel. When asked if this channel was special, he said it was because it's calmer and doesn't have any waterfalls on it. Some of the bigger fish use this channel for that reason.
So I thought, well doesn't this mean that this channel is crucial to big fish, and yes it is, but there is also a channel on the other side of Don Sahong that is very similar, he said, so they can just use that channel.
The Lao also mentioned a grate that the company would put in before the channel started to keep the fish from entering the channel from the start. People could fish off the grate. I asked if he really thought that would work and he said yes (keep in mind this is all through Mathieu's translating).
When asked if he was worried about crowding, he said that wasn't an issue and that people would just share traps and work as teams, like they already do. Mathieu told me that fisherman are very communal here and work together and split profits, a different mentality than that in the west.

The villagers, as I said, would be elated to move.

As we left the site and got back in the boat, I noticed to my right a tiny island with a Buddhist monastery almost hidden behind the brush and trees, the only thing on that island. It peeked out of the top and I saw two monks walking down to the river to boat somewhere. It was so tranquil and solitary there, and I couldn't help but think about the disruption a dam would bring to an oasis like that. But of course everyone reserves the right to develop their land and their power sources and have electricity too.

In the village of Nakasang which is the biggest village in the area of the islands, a woman buys and sells fish.

My thoughts:

I don't know what to think of the recurring trend from Lao - that they don't mind a dam coming because fish will find other ways to get upriver. I know that from Ian Baird's study, this channel is extremely crucial for fish. Even the Lao say it's a special waterway, but they don't seem to be concerned about it at all. They just think the fish will figure it out. Meanwhile, scientists and researchers are coming in and trying to maintain the Lao's livelihood of fishing and stop a huge food shortage, but inherently stopping the Lao from reaping the benefits of a hydroelectric dam in their neighborhood. It is obvious that more studies need to be done with the Hou Sahong channel as well as adjacent channels to see if the fish can use them to migrate upriver.

I am in Phnom Penh now and I think it will be very interesting to get some Cambodian views on the project. Pictures to come soon. Thanks for keeping up with my reporting.

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