Dam-building and gold mining in southern Laos are ruining water quality
downstream on the Sekong River in Cambodia, where villagers are no
longer able drink or use the water, according to an environmental group.
activities undertaken by Lao and Vietnamese companies on the Sekong’s
tributaries are making the river water muddy and full of silt, said
Meach Mean of the Cambodia-based 3S Rivers Protection Network, which
monitors environmental issues in the Sekong, Sesan, and Srepok rivers in
the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia border area.
Because of the sediment
in the Sekong, villagers downstream in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province
do not dare drink the water from the river and want the Lao government
to address the problem, according to the group.
the important thing is that countries should not cause problems for
other countries, whether through building dams or through dredging for
gold,” Meach Mean said.
Currently, the muddy waters were being
caused by construction work underway on the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy
hydropower dam on the Nam Noy River, a Sekong tributary, Meach Mean
“The construction of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy dam is causing
the Nam Noy River… to become very silty,” before it flows into the
Sekong, he said.
The dam, which will produce electricity for
export to Thailand after it is completed in 2018, is one of a dozen
hydropower projects Laos has planned or underway on the Sekong and its
tributaries, including a series on the Sekaman that had previously
caused silt downstream.
The Sekaman dams had been a “serious
cause” of water quality problems in Cambodia until work on the Sekaman 3
wrapped up last year and construction on the Sekaman 1 was suspended
over the past year, Meach Mean said.
Dredging for gold
dredging for gold on the river’s tributaries in southern Laos’s Attapeu
and Sekong provinces has become a bigger issue than the muddiness
caused by dam construction, he said.
“The main problem now is
the dredging of the Xekaman and Xesou Rivers in Attapeu province and the
Sekong River in Sekong province for gold by Vietnamese companies and
Lao companies working with Vietnamese companies.”
use back hoes to scoop up soil from streams and riverbanks, then extract
the gold onsite using chemicals, which likely include mercury, he said.
“This obviously causes a lot of turbidity downstream,” he said,
referring to a measure of how much particulate is suspended in the
Previously, dredging had been done by Chinese-owned boats
in the Sekong River, but now the heavy machinery used by Vietnamese
companies is causing more sediment to flow downstream.
such as mercury are often used in the mining process to get gold out of
rock, and residents in southern Laos have complained of toxic pollution
from gold mining along the Sekong waters for years.
Sekong River Basin
30,000 Cambodians and tens of thousands of Laotians—many of them
members of ethnic minorities in both countries—live in the Sekong River
Basin and rely on the waters for their livelihoods.
groups have said dams in the basin threaten fish stocks and sediment
flows, with global green group International Rivers warning that little
study has been done on what kind of long-term effects the dams will have
on local communities.
The only large dam in full operation so
far in the Sekong River Basin, the Houy Ho that was completed in 1998,
proved “disastrous” for downstream communities in Laos and Cambodia,
according to International Rivers.
The projects are part of a
“hydro boom” in land-locked, impoverished Laos, which has mountainous
terrain suited to hydropower and is aiming to become the “battery” of
power-hungry Southeast Asia by selling electricity to its neighbors.
has come under fire from neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam for plowing
ahead with construction on the Xayaburi dam, the first dam across the
main stem of the Mekong River, over their objections.
and the other 3S Rivers form important tributaries flowing into the
4,000-kilometer (2,500-mile) Mekong, Southeast Asia’s key artery.
'Little attention' to local communities
this month, two hundred environmentalists and riparian community
representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and southwestern
China met in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to discuss how dams on
the Mekong and the 3S rivers built by Laos and other countries were
affecting their local river environments and living standards.
Vannara, deputy director of the Cambodia NGO Forum that hosted the
meeting, said regional governments including Laos “pay little attention”
to local communities when making the decisions to build the dams.
to Laos’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, as of March Laos had 14 dams
under construction across the country, 24 in the planning stage, and 32
in the feasibility study stage, in addition to 16 that had recently
Aside from selling electricity to its
neighbors, Laos has also aimed to capitalize on its natural resources
with mines, and its mining industry is growing fast.
to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, there are currently more than 150
mining firms in Laos operating more than 200 mining projects.
gold reserves have been found in Laos’s southern provinces, and the
Ministry of Planning and Investment said recently that foreign investors
are interested in exploring new gold, lignite, and silver mines near
the Sekong and Sekaman rivers.