The construction of the Don Sahong hydropower dam in Laos has affected the habitats of Mekong River dolphins, causing their numbers to dwindle in Stung Treng province. The dwindling numbers are causing a decline in tourists who wish to see them, resulting in loss of income for villagers.
Stung Treng province – Pa Phen gazes wistfully at the Mekong river in Stung Treng province, remembering a time when there were many Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in it before numbers drastically dwindled after Laos started construction of its Don Sahong hydropower dam.
“Before 2016, when there was no dam, there were more than 10 Irrawaddy dolphins in my area, but in recent years they have disappeared and only three remain now,” the 55-year-old says. “If these three also disappear then my people will have no extra income to support their families from tourists who come to watch the mammals.”
Ms Phen is a member of the Preah Rumkel Community-Based Ecotourism Site in Borei O’Svay Senchey district’s Preah Rumkel commune.
The Preah Rumkel Community-Based Ecotourism Site is about 60 kilometers from Stung Treng city which borders Lao’s Champasak province where the dam is located.
Ms Phen says dolphins are an important natural resource and have helped to greatly improve the lives of the people in the area through tourism.
“If there are many dolphins, more tourists will visit here and the people also can earn a lot of income by selling food, fish, vegetables, fruits and souvenirs,” she says. “Before, there were about 10 to 20 carloads of tourists visiting the area daily and our villagers could also earn between about $49 and more than $244 each.
Ms Phen adds that there are now very few visitors who come to the eco-tourism site to view dolphins each day and on some days there are none at all because there are only three dolphins.
Hay Maly, a 54-year-old farmer, says she sells food to tourists at the site in order to earn extra money to support her family.
However, she says that after the Don Sahong hydropower dam was built the number of dolphins decreased and the number of tourists also declined.
“The tourists come to visit here because they want to see the dolphins, so if there are no dolphins, then there are no tourists,” she adds.
Ms Maly also expresses concern over the negative impact on the dolphins due to the Don Sahong hydropower dam which was built close to their usual habitat.
The Irrawaddy dolphin has been listed in the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the critically endangered species in the world.
Following a boat cruise at the ecotourism site to see dolphins and view the area’s natural beauty, Kitty Van Bouen from The Netherlands says she and her husband come to Cambodia because they want to see the Irrawaddy dolphins and also the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap province.
“We want to see the dolphins, we don’t have them in our country so we spent a few hours on a boat ride along the Mekong River,” she says. “It was so amazing and beautiful.”
The latest population survey in 2017 by WWF and the Fisheries Administation showed that only 92 adult Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit a 190 km stretch of the mainstream Mekong River between Kratie and Stung Treng provinces in Cambodia and Khone Falls in Laos.
Dorn Pan, a river guard for dolphin preservation in Preah Rumkel commune’s Anlong Chheuteal area, says that traditionally dolphins swim at the Mekong River along the Cambodia-Lao border.
He notes that the Don Sahong construction had affected the lives of dolphins and many species of fish in the area.
Mr Pan also expressed concern over the threat to dolphins from illegal fishing by some Cambodian and Laotians.
“As dolphin conservationists, we are concerned by this, especially when some people use chemicals to poison the fish,” he says. “And some poisoned fish float in the river to the area where the dolphins live. The dolphins eat those fish and may also die,” he says.
Laos begun the construction of Don Sahong hydropower dam in October 2015, as Mega First Corporation Berhad was in charge of the construction. The dam has a capacity of producing 240 megawatts of electricity.
According to Reuters, the dam began operations and connected its power grid to the Kingdom earlier this month to curb electric outages.
Tum Nyro, head of Fisheries Administration in Stung Treng province, says that before the dam was built, there were more than 30 dolphins appearing in the province, including 25 to 26 at the pools in Siem Bouk district and another six to seven in Borei O’Svay Senchey district next to the Lao border.
“Before the construction of Don Sahong hydropower dam, we had up to six to seven dolphins near the Lao border, but currently only three remain, and we do not know where the rest have gone,” he says.
Stung Treng Deputy Governor Chea Thavrith says that despite some challenges in the conservation of the dolphins, provincial authorities and relevant ministries are still working hard to protect the dolphins.
“We are striving to protect the dolphins and many rare species of fish in this province by closing the fishing season before other provinces, establishing five patrol stations, increasing the number of river guards and we continue to attend meetings with the relevant ministries and institutions to develop strategies for the conservation of dolphins,” he notes.
Recently, the Ministry of Tourism has also urged relevant authorities and communities to increase the participation to conserve the endangered Mekong River dolphins for sustainable tourism development.
Seng Teak, country director of World Wildlife Fund Cambodia, says that the major threats to Mekong dolphins is illegal fishing practice, while the current, under-construction and newly proposed hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream are also concerns to the future survival of the species.
“Therefore, joint protection efforts by the government, relevant partners, local communities and the private sector is crucial for the survival of the dolphins,” he says.