The World Wildlife Fund, one of the biggest conservation groups, has called for an emergency meeting with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in the wake of Laos' decision to proceed with a second dam on the river.
There are fears that this move will seriously undermine the River Commission's efforts to protect the river and its rich fish life. It could also strain regional ties, given that the Don Sahong dam is likely to have severe environmental repercussions in Cambodia and Vietnam, where millions of people rely on fishing and growing rice in the lower reaches of the Mekong.
In a statement yesterday, WWF said Vientiane's plan to go ahead with the dam in the Siphandone area and bypass the commission's process for regional consultation had cast a cloud over the MRC and its management of the river.
"The MRC was effectively broken in November last year when Laos decided unilaterally to proceed with the controversial Xayaburi dam, against the express wishes of Vietnam and Cambodia," WWF International director-general Jim Leape said.
"It is impossible to imagine that the mekong River can be harnessed sustainably without the MRC functioning properly, ensuring joint decisions are reached on dam developments that are to the benefit of all.
"The four Lower mekong countries must immediately revisit the original MRC agreement and meet urgently to resolve their differences and fix the consultation process before any other dam projects are considered.
"If the countries fail to get serious about their obligation to cooperate, they risk sabotaging both the MRC and management of one of the world's great rivers."
On September 30, Vientiane notified the MRC - an inter-governmental body made up of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam - of its decision to proceed with the Don Sahong hydropower project in the Siphandone ("One Thousand Islands") area in southern Laos near the Cambodian border.
WWF said the Don Sahong dam would block the only channel available for dry-season fish migration on the mekong "putting the world's largest inland fishery at risk".
Last Monday, Lao authorities provided a technical feasibility study, plus environmental and social-impact assessments, and a fisheries study, to be shared with other MRC member states.
Lao Energy Vice Minister Viraphonh Viravong told The Nation earlier that the Don Sahong Dam was too small to have any serious environmental impact on the Mekong. It would generate 260 megawatts of electricity for local consumption in the southern region of the country. "In the Lao language, we call it 'hou' Sahong, meaning we put generators at a hole in the river to get electricity. We don't block the river to create a big reservoir," he said.
Vientiane wants to start the project next month, so it can be done by February 2018.
However, the news has angered Thai conservationists, who are still upset about the Lao government's go-ahead on the Xayaburi dam, south of Luang Prabang.
Under the MRC agreement, all dams on the mainstream of the mekong should go through a consultation process with other states with an aim to reach a consensus on whether they should proceed.
"The mekong is a shared river, and the four countries are bound by the MRC agreement to hold inter-governmental consultations before proceeding with dam developments that impact their neighbours," WWF's Leape said.