Where Is Don Sahong?

Welcome to the Mekong River


Don Sahong is a place, an island in the Mekong River. At Siphandon just north of the Laos-Cambodia border the Mekong braids out into a dozen channels and drops nearly 100 feet over a series of waterfalls.

The Mekong River, Mae Nam Kong or Mother Of Water starts on the Tibetan plateau and flows 2700 miles to the South China Sea through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.


The Mekong is a major transportation route for much of its length. It is livelihood for 60 million humans and life for over 1000 species of fish. A few hundred wild Asian elephants remain, a few dozen freshwater dolphins, a 1000 pound freshwater ray. It is the most productive freshwater fishery in the world. And it depends on seasonal migration.


The falls at Siphandon are a natural barrier for much of the year. One channel allows fish to pass at all water levels – the channel alongside Don Sahong island. A hydroelectric dam is planned there.

Don Sahong Map

Map: International Rivers

Photo: mekongriver.info

Map: mekongriver.info

The Mekong is a complex interconnected biological system of main stem and tributaries, sediment and nutrient flow, fish and other species diversity. Overfishing, scores of dams on tributaries, agriculture, industry, deforestation and many other issues have already had heavy impact.


There are several completed hydropower projects on the upper Mekong main stem in China. Though no longer entirely a wilderness river the main stem of the lower Mekong has remained un-dammed until now.


The leaders of Lao PDR have decided Laos will become ‘the Kuwait of SE Asian Hydropower.’ They seek private investment for up to nine main stem Mekong dams and many more on tributaries in addition to those already built. Harvesting the wealth of the river is seen as necessary to improve national income, infrastructure and quality of life.


For decades Laos was one of the poorest countries on the planet. Laos has real needs. From 1964-73 Laos was the most bombed country in history. Laos received the equivalent of a full B-52 every eight minutes for nine years. Wanting a better future is justified.

Downstream in Cambodia the ‘Great Lake’ – Tonle Sap is the womb of the Mekong. In flood season the river flows back into the lake more than doubling its size and spawning the legendary abundance in stories from both upstream and downstream grandparents.


Cambodia also suffered bombing, years of brutal genocide, international ostracization and subsequent poverty. Cambodia and Laos have similar needs. International investors plan two Cambodian main stem Mekong dams and dozens more on tributaries.


Further downstream Mekong delta farms are the foodbasket of Vietnam producing rice, fruits, vegetables and fisheries. Saltwater infiltrates seasonally. Climate-caused sea level rise is also implicated. Existing upstream dams bring unseasonable and sometimes unpredictable freshwater levels. Dams may stop sediment from fertilizing and rebuilding the delta. And they impact upstream and downstream fish migration.


Current plans for improvements in health care, education, sewage, transportation and electric infrastructure require funds. The lower Mekong basin has wealth in its rivers that can be harvested as hydropower. Proposals claim to meet the goals of minimal harm and increased sustainable national income.


Some researchers and downstream governments claim the Mekong is significantly different and more diverse than rivers where many of the proposed dam mitigation strategies have been tried. They are asking for a longer and more in depth study period. Some local people ask where the benefit will go, what they will eat and what they will do for personal income.


In the US a complete assessment of economic impact and externalized costs of dams is contentious. Economic analysis shows a net loss by many dams. Social impacts of relocations, changes to fisheries and their real dollar impacts are often not fully counted.


It is unclear how Mekong hydropower projects can avoid or mitigate similar losses and achieve a net gain for people of the region. The history of international funding and mega-projects in the region is rife with vested interests and unforeseen impacts. The history of aid and development has often reflected thinly veiled colonialism.


How long should governments study? What is the role of neighboring countries, the international community, and former colonizer and combatant states? What plans will get a ‘yes’ from critics? How will governments fund infrastructure? These are legitimate questions about real and imminent needs.

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Columbia Dams Map

Map: nwcouncil.org

The One River Project


The One River Project was started in 2013 by a small group of teachers and ecologists. They saw parallels and connections between Columbia River history in the northwest United States and current Mekong issues. The goal is to support connections and exchange between organizations, citizens and students.


Mekong basin governments face complicated issues. Globalized economy and nationalized control of planning and resources vie with local and regional desire for control of food, energy and livelihood security. On the Columbia River those same pressures played out decades ago. And they continue in debates about loss of fisheries, climate, power generation, water rights and use of the river corridor as a conduit for transporting fossil fuels. Despite physical and cultural distance the rivers are linked by history, the current global economy and the culture of river people.


The One River Project is renovating our website. This page offers an introduction to the Mekong through the example of one project. It asks if a free-running channel alongside Don Sahong best serves the interests of all Mekong people. And it acknowledges the legitimate needs of lower Mekong countries.


Updated pages will be reposted and new content added about history, current issues and connections between the stories of two great world rivers.