Laos' Mekong dam moves stir up public discontent

opinion October 10, 2013 00:00

By Jim Pollard
The Nation

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Critics and opponents say dam projects are going ahead without recourse to prior agreements on consultation, and without adequate impact assessments

Anger over the Lao government’s unilateral decision to go ahead with a second hydropower project on the Mekong – despite a storm of controversy about dams on the lower stretch of the river – has fired a groundswell of opposition both within Thailand and the region.
Anti-dam meetings are planned in Nong Khai and Bangkok this week against the Xayaburi dam, being built south of Luang Prabang, and the Don Sahong project, which the Lao regime wants to start work on next month, in the Siphandon (Thousand Islands) area near the southern border with Cambodia.
Two of the world’s leading conservation groups – International Rivers and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) – have also voiced alarm about the latest move by Laos, which appears to contravene regional agreements to consult neighbours and reach a consensus before proceeding with any project that could jeopardise the status of the river and its rich marine life.
Laos has claimed that Don Sahong is only a channel of the Mekong, and that the project to build a facility that would generate 260 megawatts of electricity will have minimal impact on the river. But this is disputed by environmentalists, who say there are alternatives such as the Thakho project in the Khone Falls area, which would have much less environmental and social impact.
Scientists from Cambodia and Vietnam will attend both events – a two-day forum at Muang Phu Paradise Hotel in Nong Khai, starting today, and a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok on tonight.
Anti-dam opponents from a range of Thai groups will present findings from studies among groups living adjacent to the river at the regional conference in Nong Khai. They want an immediate stop to work at the Xayaburi dam site, a huge US$3.5-billion project already well underway, until “proper and independent” impact studies are done and a consensus reached about whether that project, and the proposed Don Sahong dam, should go ahead.
Civil society groups in Thailand are upset at Vientiane, condemned by some as a bullying one-party regime happy to muzzle its press, to use biased pro-development impact assessments to back risky money-generating schemes and silence local opponents to state mega-projects. (The abduction of social activist Sombath Somphone last December, winner of the prestigious Magsaysay award has created a climate of fear among civil society groups, although supporters say his disappearance was not linked specifically to dams).
There is also grave concern among environmentalists in countries downriver that the dams will jeopardise two of the region’s most significant food sources – fish catches in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake and rice production in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.
Chhith Sam Ath, from Cambodia’s NGO Forum, said: “The Don Sahong dam will push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis. The project is next to Cambodia’s border – have they forgotten that fish are our lifeline and the backbone of our economy? Fish are central to our diet and our main source of protein.
“It’s irresponsible to proceed with this project without consulting downstream people or carrying out a credible transboundary impact assessment. Fish are simply too precious a resource to be squandered,” he said.
Nguy Thi Khanh, director of Vietnam’s Green Innovation and Development Centre, said: “While energy can be generated via more sustainable sources, the depletion of fish and food is irreversible. The Mekong governments must find a way out of this dilemma, before regional tensions grow. We cannot let politics and unilateral decisions fail our rivers and future water and food security. Now more than ever, we need the MRC and its member countries to protect the indispensable resources that the Mekong River provides for millions of people.”
The Lao government sent a letter of “prior notification” to the Mekong River Commission last week to announce it would start work on the Don Sahong dam next month. But the move has drawn heated criticism and spurred fears that the MRC is being marginalised by the socialist regime to a point where international donors may opt to withdraw their support.
Teerapong Pomun, from Thailand’s Living Rivers Association, said: “Laos is once again attempting to evade its responsibilities, while forcing the public in the region to pay for the immense damage that the Don Sahong dam will cause. Laos must cancel this project, along with the other mainstream dams, before it’s too late.”
Ame Trandem, at International Rivers, said: “Laos has side-stepped its responsibilities to submit the project to the MRC’s prior consultation process, despite earlier statements made by the MRC Secretariat and its international donors that the project should undergo the consultation process to allow for regional decision-making.
“If the MRC fails to clamp down on Laos, it will be failing its mandate and will lose any validity it has left as an organisation. The MRC can no longer absolve Laos from its responsibilities; this project must undergo the prior consultation as mandated by the 1995 Mekong Arrangement. A moratorium should also be implemented on all mainstream dam building, so that the MRC’s impact study on the projects – that was agreed upon by Laos and neighbouring countries in 2011 – is first implemented.”
So, it was no surprise that WWF called on Friday for the MRC to convene a special session of its four member states to discuss Vientiane’s intention to proceed with a second dam.
The underlying problem is that Laos is one of the world’s least developed countries, in desperate need of revenue. Given that it has a budget crisis and difficulty paying wages to state employees, its leaders are expected to rebuff any attempts to deter it from its present course. However, Hanoi and Phnom Penh may have the capacity to deter the latest project – if they get the Lao regime to consider the Thakho project or alternate ways to generate power.
The Xayaburi dam, which is 10 per cent complete, was effectively a Thai-Lao project, funded by Thai banks, built by Thai construction giant Ch Karnchang, so that 95 per cent of the power it generates can be relayed to Thailand.
However, the Don Sahong dam is a Lao project, proposed by a little known company from Malaysia in the midst of one of the region’s most pristine sites – Siphandon. With close to a dozen dams proposed on the lower Mekong, concern is likely to be mounting in Hanoi and Phnom Penh that they can no longer allow their smaller neighbour to jeopardise vital food sources.
The vast majority of the Cambodian people rely on fish for protein. And if the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams hinder the Tonle Sap’s bountiful fish yield and its remarkable capacity to change direction annually, it could create an ecological catastrophe that gravely undermines the country’s food security.
Many believe the Xayaburi dam is already a far too serious risk, given the impediment it is likely to pose to fish migration and sediment flow (claims that the dam is a run-of-the river structure that will alleviate these concerns are doubted by many scientists). There is also concern that, coupled with Chinese dams on the river’s upper reaches, these midstream dams are likely to allow far greater saltwater intrusion into Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, the Mekong Delta.