Manthorpe: Laos’ Mekong River Hydro Dam Riles Neighbors

JANUARY 20, 2013
Manthorpe: Laos’ Mekong River hydro dam riles neighbours

Laos’ determination to become “the battery of Southeast Asia” by building a cascade of hydro-electric dams on the Mekong River is meeting growing alarm and resistance from not only neighboring countries, but also foreign governments funding the river’s management organization.

There was pointed criticism leveled at the Laotian government by neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam during a heated meeting last week of the council of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) together with representatives of its nearly 20 supporting international donors.

All are unhappy that Laos is steaming ahead with construction of a $3.5 billion hydro dam at Xayaburi, the first such project on the Lower Mekong, without what other MRC members consider a proper environmental and economic assessment of the scheme.

Several environmental reports speculate the dam could seriously affect the flows of the river and fish migration in what is the world’s most productive fresh water fishery.

Critics of the Laotian program believe it could affect the lives of millions of people who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood.

Representatives of the MRC’s international partners, which include many European countries as well as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, said at the opening of the council meeting at the Laotian riverside city of Luang Prabang on Thursday that they remain concerned about the Xayaburi project.

“It is our consensus that building dams on the mainstream of the Mekong may irrevocably change the river and hence constitute a challenge for food security, sustainable development and biodiversity conservation,” said the statement.

“We remain concerned about the social impacts and environmental risks associated with the construction of the Xayaburi hydropower dam.”

The partners reaffirmed their belief that the MRC is the right and competent organization to consider and coordinate responses to proposed development on the Mekong River, which rises on the Tibetan Plateau and flows 4,350 kilometres through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to the South China Sea.

But the inability of MRC members to agree on a common timetable approach with the Laos to the Xayaburi project is raising questions about the commission’s usefulness.

The MRC was created in 1995 with members Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

China has stayed aloof from the MRC and only recently agreed to discuss its plans with its southern neighbours.

China has already built four dams on its stretch of the Mekong, and it is evidence of disturbances to fish migration patterns and the annual cycle of water flows that have intensified feelings in the MRC that much more detailed impact studies need to be done.

The concern is heightened because the Xayaburi dam is the first of 11 such projects planned for the Lower Mekong. It is a precedent which will inevitably affect the approval process and regulation of the other 10 projects.

But MRC members and international donors believe Laos is taking a cavalier approach to the impact assessment process.

The MRC recommended in 2010 that all decisions on approving Lower Mekong hydro dam projects be deferred for at least 10 years while further impact studies are made.

In December 2011 key Lower Mekong MRC members Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam thought they had an agreement with Laos to delay construction of the Xayaburi dam pending further assessment.

But the Laotian government clearly has a different definition of delay and deferment from its neighbours.

Even as these meetings were going on in 2011 Laos informed the dam’s developers, a Thai construction company, that they could go ahead with “preliminary work” associated with the project.

In January 2012 Laos and the Thai construction company, and without telling other MRC members, began resettling the first of the over 2,000 people whose homes and farms will disappear under the reservoir.

In the middle of last year International Rivers, a U.S.-based advocacy group, found evidence that construction at the Xayaburi site was continuing, had gone well beyond the associated “preliminary work” and involved the project proper.

In November Laos cleared the air, announced that it considered the consultation and reassessment process with its neighbours to be complete and that construction would now go full steam ahead.

Laos says a coffer dam will be completed in May and construction of the full dam will start soon after.

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