Dams of destruction threaten Mekong
ï¿½ Published: 6/12/2011 at 12:00 AM
ï¿½ Newspaper section: News, Bangkok Post
This week a decision will be made in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that could
shape the future of the mighty Mekong River and fundamentally alter
the lives of 60 million people.
The governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam will meet
tomorrow and Thursday near the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, to
discuss the controversial Xayaburi Dam in Laos, which threatens to
become the first dam on the Lower Mekong River. Under a 1995 treaty,
the four governments must reach a consensus before any project can be
built on the Lower Mekong.
If Xayaburi is approved, it could open the floodgates for 10 more dams
to be built on the river. If all the projects are built, an estimated
55% of the Lower Mekong would be turned into a stagnant reservoir. The
world's largest inland fishery would be decimated by giant walls that
prevent millions of fish from migrating to their breeding grounds.
Farmers would lose access to the nutrients that the river carries down
from its upper reaches, and millions of people would lose access to
the fish that are an essential source of protein in their diets.
Politicians are scrambling to make sense of this dilemma. All major
geopolitical decisions have complicated tradeoffs. But with the
Xayaburi Dam, there is simply not enough information about what the
region's governments could be trading away.
Evidence so far points to the dam being a bad idea of historic
proportions. Because the impact would be irreversible, numerous
scientists have urged the governments to conduct more studies before
making a decision.
In the past year, two authoritative scientific investigations urged
caution and recommended further studies, but were quickly swept aside
In 2010, a strategic environmental assessment was completed for the
Mekong River Commission (MRC), the inter-governmental organisation
that manages the shared river. The report concluded that the 11
proposed dams on the Mekong River would likely cause "serious and
irreversible environmental damage" in all four countries, and
recommended a 10-year deferment while further scientific studies were
The MRC, however, pushed this study aside. Instead of endorsing the
report, its website explained that the assessment is "not an official
MRC approved document".
Economists are also questioning whether the Mekong dams will really
bring about the growth that proponents claim.
In a 2011 study funded by the US Agency for International Development
(USAID), Portland State University questioned the assumptions that
regional policymakers used to calculate the costs and benefits of the
Mekong dams. The study concludes that the costs could significantly
outweigh the benefits (with a net negative cost of US$274 billion in
Many proponents of the Mekong dams, it seems, did not consider the
massive economic benefits generated by the river's fisheries and
Meanwhile, Laos has distributed a quasi-scientific study to woo the
other governments into agreement. In May, Laos hired Swiss company
Poyry Energy to determine whether the Xayaburi Dam complies with the
governments' agreed criteria for Mekong dams.
The Poyry report recommends that the dam should be built, despite
identifying over 40 major scientific and technical studies that still
need to be completed.
The report falsely claims that any negative impact from the dam can be
fixed after construction begins _ an approach that is out of step with
all respected international practice.
This puts politicians in an awkward position. The legitimate concerns
of the strategic environmental assessment and the USAID-funded study
have been buried.
Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam (along with donor governments) instead
find themselves forced to spend time reviewing the Poyry report that
has already been widely dismissed as greenwash.
Vietnam and Cambodia have raised concerns about the Xayaburi Dam's
trans-boundary impact. While Thailand has also expressed concern with
the project, it is negotiating a deal to purchase 95% of the
electricity generated. No consensus has been reached.
Laos has capitalised on all of this indecisiveness, constructing roads
and work camps in the remote area where it wants to build the Xayaburi
Dam, and announcing plans to begin blocking the river by the end of
The official Xayaburi website boldly claims that Laos has a right to
move forward with the project, and that the project would not have any
negative environmental impact.
The Siem Reap meeting this week is not only a test for the Xayaburi
Dam, but a test for regional cooperation around the shared Mekong River.
The right thing for governments to do is to take a precautionary
approach and cancel the dam -- or at least commit to a 10-year
postponement on construction of dams along the Lower Mekong region, so
that further scientific studies can be conducted.
In either case, Laos will need to stop construction on the Xayaburi
Dam and cooperate in good faith.
Thailand will need to cancel plans to purchase electricity from the dam.
Donors, such as the United States, European and Australian
governments, could offer to fund the necessary scientific studies,
support a revision of the regional decision-making process, and urge
Laos to explore more reasonable development alternatives to Mekong dams.
This will take some uncomfortable conversations with Laos and
Thailand. The next few days will see some awkward diplomatic moments,
but the time has come for governments to take a bold stance against
the reckless damming of the Mekong River.
Kirk Herbertson works with International Rivers, a US-based non-profit
organisation that protects rivers and the rights of people who depend
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