There are just 85 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong River. The isolated dolphin group occupies the border between Lao PDR and Cambodia. Despite the already low numbers, in 2014, there are plans set in motion to build a new hydropower dam, known as the Don Sahong, upstream from the dolphins’ territory. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the dolphins’ already shrinking numbers and habitat can’t withstand the construction of a new dam.
Mekong River‘s Irrawaddy Dolphins
There weren’t always 85 Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) in the Mekong River. Per a WWF report, their numbers have declined and they now occupy just 86 percent of their historic territory. While the dolphins’ territory historically reached Vietnam’s delta, today, they are limited to the deep pools of the Mekong River.
The Irrawaddy dolphins are classified as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. Apart from existing hydropower dams, other factors that have contributed to their critical status are gillnet entanglements and low calf survival rates (although, it is unclear why their calf survival rates are so low).
The WWF reports calls the Sahong Dam, which will be constructed only one kilometer upstream of their habitat stronghold, a critical factor that will likely lead to their extinction in the area.
How the Don Sahong Dam Will Affect Dolphins
The Don Sahong dam threatens the freshwater biodiversity in the region. Advocates of the dam claim that the dam will power the mainland of Southeast Asia with a lower carbon footprint. Yet, worldwide, dams are known to significantly contribute to greenhouse emissions, and the Upper Mekong of China is already filled with hydropower dams.
The Don Sahong dam will interrupt the current free-flowing river. From the dam’s construction phase to its operating phase, dolphin advocates worry about: 1) the degradation of the declining dolphin habitat; 2) the fragmentation of the already low population; 3) the interruption of current dolphin (and their prey’s) migration patterns; and 4) the dam’s construction disturbances (e.g. rock blasts, boat traffic and toxic spills).
How the Don Sahong Dam Will Affect People
Sure, dam construction might appear to help the local economy with more infrastructure, development, productivity and employment opportunities, but the consequences of the dam will surely be detrimental to the area’s poorest locals.
The 2000 World Commission on Dams report comprehensively highlighted all of the consequences of dams, including the human consequences.
The same issues crept up for the poorest of the poor across the globe. Many locals were displaced from their lands, and they were also displaced economically because many of their traditional economic livelihoods depended on natural resources.
While some were compensated for these displacements, only legal owners of land titles were monetarily compensated. This left many of the most vulnerable locals out. As a result of dam construction, joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity, mortality, water scarcity and the loss of culture were in. Many were also undernourished and susceptible to diseases — and death — from the deteriorated water quality.
The Don Sahong dam isn’t worth it. The environment, the critically endangered 85 Irrawaddy dolphins and the locals that live along the Mekong River will suffer. Yet, as the Bangkok Post reports, despite knowing about the concerns, Laos is moving forward with the dam’s construction. Please sign and share this petition to save the Irrawaddy dolphins from extinction before it’s too late.
Photo Credit: Peter Harrison