CHIANG KHONG, Thailand (AP) — Dismissing its neighbors' pleas, impoverished Laos is rapidly building a Mekong River dam that threatens fisheries crucial to millions of Southeast Asia's poorest people.
The site of the Don Sahong dam, less than 2 kilometers (1 mile) from the Lao-Cambodian border, is in an area famous for spectacular waterfalls and deep pools that is among the few habitats of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. A "coffer dam" blocks one of the Mekong's main channels to allow construction of the hydropower project, which will suck in as much as half of the river's water during the dry season.
Landlocked Laos is Southeast Asia's poorest state, and all its neighbors far exceed its population of 7 million. But by virtue of geography and burgeoning Chinese influence, its authoritarian leaders wield unaccountable power over a 4,800-kilometer-long (3,000-mile-long) river that begins in Tibet and winds through six countries before emptying into the South China Sea.
China has built six dams on its stretch of the Mekong since the mid-1990s, and Laos plans nine. Many dams have been built on Mekong tributaries as well, and dozens more are planned. Experts say they are already damaging the world's largest inland fisheries and degrading a rice bowl delta that helps feed Cambodia and Vietnam, the two countries farthest downstream. Even building a few dams on the lower Mekong will dramatically compound the damage to a river basin that 60 million people rely on, according to scientific models of dam impacts.
The Don Sahong dam "is like a one-ton bomb above us," said Phoy Vanna, a tourist boat owner and father of 10 who has joined hundreds of other Cambodian villagers in protests.
The rest of Southeast Asia is powerless to stop Laos. Under an international agreement on protecting the Mekong, the country is obliged only to consult its neighbors.
At 256 megawatts, Don Sahong will have relatively little power capacity, but it could be especially damaging because it blocks a major route for fish migrations.
In an environmental impact study that did not consider effects on neighboring countries, Laos says it will protect fisheries by deepening an inlet and blasting rapid to create new routes for fish to swim upriver.
"We don't know what the claims that things will be fine are based upon. This is unacceptable considering the high stakes," said Ian Baird, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies Mekong fisheries.
Laos has said the power will help fuel development in the south of the country. Yet overall, its plans for nine hydro dams call for exporting most of the electricity to Thailand and Vietnam.
Research indicates the combined effect of planned Mekong dams would be devastating.
Most recently, a study for Vietnam by Danish water consultancy DHI predicted Mekong Delta rice production would drop steeply because the dams would trap sediments, reducing nutrients flowing downstream. The study predicts annual fishery and farming losses of more than $760 million in Vietnam and $450 million in Cambodia, the two worst affected countries.
With Don Sahong, Laos followed a pattern established five years earlier when it went ahead with the Xayaburi dam in northern Laos over the objections of neighboring countries.
Philip Hirsch, a professor of human geography at Sydney University, said China has emboldened Laos. Chinese dams have raised dry-season water levels, making downstream hydro development more viable. And Beijing's influence has made Laos less dependent on Vietnam, the country worst affected by Mekong dams.
The effects of existing Chinese dams are apparent to many across the Mekong from Laos in the sleepy northern Thailand town of Chiang Khong, which once bustled with hundreds of fishing boats.
More than a decade ago, a day's catch could be 10 or more kilograms. Today, it's 1 or 2 kilograms or often nothing. Some species of fish have gone altogether. Fishing as a main livelihood has almost disappeared.
"I'm a fisherman but I feel like I have to buy a can of fish to eat," said 60-year-old Somdet Tanatunyakul.
Unpredictable dam releases also damage riverbank gardens that line the Mekong throughout Southeast Asia. More than half that riverbank land will be lost if all proposed mainstream dams are built, according to an Australian study.
Pianporn Deetes, a campaigner with International Rivers, an advocacy group, said the Mekong will be irreversibly damaged within the next decade without a binding agreement to control development.
"Each dam will be owned and operated by different companies, from different countries. Each of them will be focused on extracting the resources of the Mekong for the highest profit they can make," she said.
AP writer Sopheng Cheang and photographer Sinith Heng contributed from the Cambodian-Lao border.