DON DET, Laos: “When I was born, my grandparents told me, ‘The dolphins are special. If you see them, you will get good luck. If you capsize your boat, the dolphins will save you. You can trust them.'”
The young man in his 20s is standing on the bank of the Mekong River in a section that a small pod of the critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin calls home - a home which is about to sit next to perhaps the most divisive hydropower dam project in the region.
He is a local guide in the Four Thousand Islands, a major tourism hotspot in a land still largely reliant on subsistence farming and age-old fishing practices. He recounts a long tale of how dolphins first came here, how they are considered special and why locals fear the shy residents could depart forever.
It is estimated that there are only about 80 of the animals left in the Mekong. At this part of the river, straddling the border of Cambodia and Laos, there are, at most, only five.
“The dolphin is the natural treasure of Cambodia; it's the special species attached to the people's hearts,” said Un Chakrey from WWF Cambodia. “People love them and don't want to lose them.”
Now, the dolphin’s plight in these waters has come to represent the environmental struggle engulfing the Don Sahong project. Developed by Malaysian power company Mega First Corporation and built by Chinese construction firm Sinohydro, the dam’s construction will block the main channel of the river which is seen by many as Southeast Asia’s lifeblood.
Critics argue that even if the hydropower project can produce the 260 megawatts of electricity it promises to, the ecological damage it will cause to the local and wider environment makes it irresponsible and unfeasible. Yet construction has swiftly begun, supported by the Lao government, despite calls for more studies from neighbouring countries Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Excavators are busy at the site, where the foundations for a 32-metre dam wall are being prepared. Timed explosions and the whirring of heavy duty machinery are at odds with the serenity of the area, where the only sounds normally come from the occasional fishing boat and the busy fauna of the forest.
In Laos, however, this is progress.
“THERE IS CHANGE HAPPENING”
The government has lofty ambitions to make this landlocked nation the battery of the region - Laos itself is also becoming thirstier for electricity - and has plans for a total of up to 10 mainstream Mekong dams in the coming years.
The aim is to provide a reliable source of electricity for local communities, with spare capacity being exported overseas to bring in more revenue to help fund national development.
Don Sahong is a small project compared to others, such as the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam further north, but its location next to a dolphin habitat and an essential fish migration path has drawn widespread criticism.
Yet, with civil society strictly controlled by the Communist government, opponents of projects like Don Sahong cannot readily speak out in Laos.
Villagers in the hundreds of island communities around Don Det live in an apparently muted state; most dare not say anything about the project, positive or negative, or even raise questions about the impact on their lives.
Speaking anonymously, one local man told Channel NewsAsia that many people are angry about the development but have little means to express themselves. “We are powerless. We can’t say anything,” he said.
“There is no one to stand up for us. People can’t fight. Everyone is quiet and scared. We don’t know what will happen, if places will flood or not. They tell us no, but how can we be sure?”
Those with positions of power within the local communities can speak - but do so cautiously - making it clear that they have been regularly consulted as the dam’s construction has got underway. Kam Pao, the village chief of Don Sadam, an island close to the site, said he could not be sure if the project would be good or bad, but mentioned concerns, including the impact on rice farmers and the relocation of some villagers.
Only a small number of residents needed to move due to the relatively small size of the Don Sahong’s reservoir, but many lost access to their generational agriculture fields.
“The project has to be done very carefully. They have to keep the water clean,” said Kam Pao. The village has emotional connections to the nearby dolphins and has watched anxiously amid chemical flows and underwater explosions from the dam’s construction.
“The dolphins don’t want to move anywhere. This is their home,” he said. “The dolphins are like people. People want to see the dolphins. In Laos, we have only this, these ones here."
“There is change happening here - for the people and for nature,” he added.
That change is being felt just across the border in Cambodia too. Only there - less than two kilometres away - opposition to the dam is rampant and loud.
AN ICONIC RIVER, A SHARED RIVER
Preah Rumkel is a community trying to transform itself. It is poor, isolated and has stood on the toil of agriculture and fishing for as long as it has existed.
In recent years, citizens have tried to take advantage of eco-tourism, using the natural environment they depend on for survival to earn money from visitors. They feel their entire enterprise is now at risk.
While concern is mild about tourists flocking away from the backpacker haven on the Lao side of the border if the dolphins disappeared, in Cambodia it is a white-hot issue.
“I can assume that if we lose the dolphins, we may get less or no income. I don’t have anything to do besides doing farming if the eco-tourism closes,” said Yin Vuth, the director of the eco-tourism community in Preah Rumkel.
“I want to ask who will take responsibility if anything wrong happens to us.”
Deputy director of Onlong Psoat Eco-tourism Lok Chanthu shared similar sentiments. “I hope our government won’t close their eyes to ignore what is happening. We don’t see any benefit from the hydropower construction. Cambodian citizens are the victims,” she said.
The risk of an adverse environmental impact in Cambodia is not clear. No transboundary impact assessment was ever undertaken to measure what will happen to the downstream Mekong, which flows into the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, and eventually into Vietnam. The river’s delta is the country’s “rice bowl”.
“It’s an iconic river, it’s also a shared river. So, one country shouldn’t decide unilaterally how to use this shared resource,” said Tanja Venisnik, a lawyer and human rights specialist.
She is one of many voices questioning the process whereby the dam’s construction has continued despite a lack of general consultation.
“We have been asking for a long time for the developers and other stakeholders to conduct appropriate baseline studies around fish species, which fish migrate through these channels and provide proof about how mitigation measures will be effective and consult with affected communities,” she said. “However, Mega First has not done any of that yet.”
The company did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but evidence suggests that Mega First has implemented several measures to reduce the environmental impact, including fish studies and monitoring. Yet criticism has been levelled at it and the Lao government for continuing construction before those methods could be tested.
“The prior consultation process was underway while the Lao government was going ahead with the project,” Venisnik said. “They were signing agreements (while) doing preliminary construction. It’s very dubious to say negotiations were done in good faith.”
Tek Vannara from Cambodia’s NGO Forum is a leading voice in environmental advocacy and negotiation in the region. He has fears for not only for the local environment but the entire river system.
“Our worry is the negative impact on the food security of the Cambodian people. Seventy to 80 per cent depend on the agricultural system, river resources, water resources and fisheries,” he said.
“Without good management of the forestry and watershed of the reservoir and the dam, how will they survive in the future? It will destroy the source of the water.”
The future appears even bleaker for the few remaining Irrawaddy dolphins in the cross-hairs of the project. From boats and kayaks, tourists keenly keep their eyes on the waves, hoping for a glimpse of the shy creatures.
Mostly they deliver, frolicking in the fast-rushing monsoonal waters, teasing with the occasional flash of a dorsal fin or tail. The question is for how much longer.
"It’s a serious concern,” said Chhith Sam Ath, WWF Cambodia Country Director. “If you travel by boat on the Mekong, you will see a lot of beautiful landscape, wetlands and a lot of species, which could be destroyed. The ecological system of the Mekong, up to the Tonle Sap, the fish, all of it will be destroyed."
“The dolphins in particular are very sensitive, you cannot move them from location to location. It's not like a dolphin in the sea. They don't want to leave their home, they've been there for thousands of years,” he said.
“The dolphins are a reflection of the health of the Mekong as a whole. When you have dolphins, you still have fish. But if the dolphins are gone, that means everything is gone.”