Battle for the Mekong takes new turn
Vietnam and Cambodia have finally joined the battle over the future of the Mekong River, after months of dithering at the decision by Laos to start work on the controversial Xayaburi Dam.
Laos reached an agreement with downstream countries Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand more than a year ago to suspend construction of the US$3.5-billion (Bt113 billion) dam while independent studies were made on fish migration patterns and the possible threat posed by the dam to food security.
About 60 million people depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods through a hand-to-mouth existence.
However, Vientiane ignored what amounted to a moratorium, Thai construction companies went to work immediately in November at the site and plans for further dams were released.
At last week's meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Luang Prabang, Cambodia demanded that all construction be immediately halted and argued that Laos had misinterpreted previous agreements. Meanwhile, Vietnam insisted that no dams be constructed until an agreed upon independent study is completed.
Thai general contracting and infrastructure development group Ch Karnchang - through its 50 per-cent-owned subsidiary Xayaburi Power Co - has a 29-year concession to operate the dam's 1,285-megawatt power plant, as well as assurances from Thailand that it will purchase about 95 per cent of the electricity generated.
Cambodia and Vietnam are demanding a regional consensus before construction can start.
The Xayaburi is seen as a test case whose outcome will be crucial for a series of planned dams to harvest hydroelectricity from the lower Mekong basin. The successful execution of these projects would see some 70 dams in operation by 2030.
Environmentalists say the Xayaburi will likely have a devastating effect on downstream ecology and livelihoods.
"We are calling on donor governments and the governments of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia to take a firm stand against Laos," said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Programme director for International Rivers. "The Xayaburi Dam is the first of a cascade of devastating mainstream dams that will severely undermine the region's development efforts. The food security and jobs of millions of people in the region are now on the line."
Milton Osborne of the Lowy Institute, an Australian foreign policy think-tank, said Xayaburi marked a turning point that would enable others to build their own dams, including Cambodia.
He described as a "monstrous disaster" a proposal for a Chinese power company to build a dam at Sambor in northeastern Cambodia, on a tributary of the Mekong.
"It would be so disastrous, blocking one of the main fish migratory systems," he said
Studies undertaken independently all point to a grave picture for food security in the region if water is diverted for power generation. The study prepared by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) for the Mekong River Commission found ample evidence of environmental degradation.
However, it is easy to see why Laos is so focused on dam building. "If all 12 mainstream projects were to go ahead, Lao PDR would receive US$2.6 billion per year generated by the mainstream dams, with Cambodia receiving 30 per cent ($1.2 billion/year)," reported the environmental assessment for the dam in October, 2010.
The flip side to this rosy picture is also included in the same document:
"In the short to medium term poverty would be made worse by any one of the mainstream projects, especially among the poor in rural and urban riparian areas. Fishers, in particular, are over represented in poor and vulnerable Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) communities which would be affected by fisheries losses. Poorer households would also be adversely affected by the direct impacts of hydropower development including resettlement, loss of land, and impacts during the construction period. Loss of fisheries and associated proteins would lead to declines in nutritional health in LMB populations, particularly in Cambodia and Laos where up to 30 per cent of the national protein supply would be at risk if all mainstream dams were to go ahead. These food security issues are likely to affect both the rural and urban poor."