An environmental atrocity is about to be committed on Thailand’s eastern flank, which has the potential to make the Pak Moon Dam look like a minor mishap – and badly wound the Abhisit government, if it does nothing to stop it.
Environmentalists say the years of protests and protracted battles over the disastrous dam across the Moon River in Isaan could be magnified many times over if the Thai building firm Ch Karnchang is allowed to build the highly controversial Xayaburi Dam across the mainstream of the mekong in Laos just a short distance south of Luang Prabang.
The Xayaburi Dam has been formally proposed by the Lao government although critics say it is actually a deeply flawed Thai project, because four Thai banks will provide all the funding and 95 per cent of the power it would generate (1,260 megawatts) will be purchased by Egat, Thailand’s state power utility.
Opposition to the US$3.5 billion project has surged dramatically as the deadline for a decision looms ever closer – now just a few weeks away – and reports emerge of earth-moving equipment being moved into the proposed site. Some 263 non-government groups in 51 countries were signatories to letters sent last week to Abhisit and the Lao prime minister calling on them to respect “massive public opposition” and cancel the dam.
“As a river of global significance, we are urging the governments of Laos and Thailand to call a stop to the destructive Xayaburi Dam,” said Pieter Jansen of Both Ends. “If the project proceeds, the mekong River Commission’s (MRC) regional decision-making process will lose all public credibility through its complete disregard to the dam’s massive public opposition. It will also demonstrate that decision-making has not been based on holistic river basin management despite the compelling scientific evidence of the dam’s impact on the Mekong’s ecosystem and the millions of people who depend on it for their livelihoods and food security.”
Premrudee Daoroung, from the Thai group Terra (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliances), said overwhelming opposition to the dam had been expressed at five public meetings about the dam, yet both governments appear determined to go ahead regardless. Premrudee, plus others monitoring the proposal, condemned the environmental impact assessment (EIA) as unacceptable. They say it has been written to downplay the dam’s likely impact on fisheries and was deliberately released late in the process – a final decision must be made by April 23 – to minimise public opposition.
One participant at a forum about the dam late last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCCT) in Bangkok warned that the level of anger in riverside communities about the likely negative impacts on villagers’ livelihoods was at boiling point. “People [at a meeting in Chiang Khan] were talking about coming to Bangkok to burn down state buildings, if this dam and others go ahead – that is how strong the feelings were,” a Western resident warned.
Ame Trandem, the Bangkok-based representative for International Rivers, described the dam’s EIA report – released just three weeks ago – as “abysmal” and “totally inadequate”.
“It lacks basic yet critical technical information, is riddled with analytical flaws and fails to consider transboundary impacts, despite other MRC-commissioned reports demonstrating that the dam’s high environmental and social impacts will be irreversible and will be felt basin-wide. Given the quality of the EIA and the anticipated impacts, if this project were to go ahead it would be unimaginably irresponsible.”
The Xayaburi Dam is the first of about a dozen dams planned on the lower mekong that ecologists say would have a dramatic impact on Cambodia, where the fishery sector accounts for up to 12 per cent of national GDP and is vital for local diets, biodiversity and tourism. The dams would also have a serious impact on Vietnam’s “rice bowl” by impeding the flow of both water and rich sediment to the mekong Delta.
Vietnamese academics have expressed strong opposition to the dams, which have become front-page news in the delta, according to British journalist Tom Fawthrop, who showed his documentary “Killing the mekong Dam by Dam” at the FCCT last month. A key concern about the Xayaburi Dam, and other lower mekong dams planned to follow it, is that one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, which generates an annual fish haul valued at an estimated $3 billion will be destroyed, because the flow of the river will be blocked and fish unable to migrate from one “dead zone” to another.
The livelihoods of millions of people will be put at risk because the vast number of fish that flourish in the lower mekong would be a thing of the past. And the cycle of flooding that swells and reverses the flow of Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s vast inland lake, every year would be disrupted – and may never occur again. Fish experts in Cambodia have warned that more than 40 species, including the iconic mekong giant catfish, face the risk of extinction, and up to a million Cambodians who live around Tonle Sap will be affected, with many forced to find new livelihoods.
On top of these huge environmental concerns have come warnings from geologists: the Xayaburi Dam site is close to an active fault line. Premrudee noted at the FCCT forum that a quake which registered 4.5 on the Richter scale occurred just 16 kilometres from the dam site in late February. However, the risk of quakes and the potential threat of a dam collapse – and the nightmare scenario of a series of cascading dam collapses – had not even been addressed by the dam builders, she said. Meanwhile, she queried the need for the dam, saying Egat was guilty of repeatedly over-estimating Thailand’s energy demands. Given the magnitude of these concerns, environmentalists were horrified last week when they viewed a video of an FCCT dinner with Prime Minister Abhisit.
Asked about the Xayaburi Dam and why Thailand was involved with a dam that could be potentially very damaging to neighbouring countries, the PM was confused about which dam the journalist asked about. He noted: “We let the MOU expire” – mistakenly referring to another dam proposed near Ubon Ratchathani. Maybe the PM’s advisers need to alert him to this latest controversy and the need for this dam to be deferred – as the MRC has recommended – or axed altogether. It might win him a few votes.
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Proposed dam on the Mekong should not go ahead until all social and environmental concerns are addressed
International pressure is mounting as 263 non-governmental organisations from 51 countries step up their campaign to get Thailand to cancel the proposed Xayaburi Dam on the mekong River’s mainstream in northern Laos. In a recent letter sent to the governments of Laos and Thailand, the NGOs urged all parties to cancel plans to build this destructive project, saying public and international credibility are at stake, as well as the ecology of the affected area and the huge number of people who depend on it for their livelihood and food security.
Environmental groups, scientists and others who have been following this project say it has serious flaws and it represents an unacceptable threat to the lives of millions of people in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“The dam’s environmental impact assessment report, released last week, is totally inadequate,” Ame Trandem of International Rivers says. The US-based group says the assessment lacks basic yet critical technical information. Other critics say the EIA was written to downplay the dam’s impact on fisheries and was deliberately released late (a final decision must be made by April 23) to minimise public opposition.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, during a recent dinner with members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, was dazed when the issue was put to him. The PM appeared to confuse this dam – which would be built by the Thai firm Ch Karnchang but is supported by Vientiane – with another proposed by the Samak government near Ubon Ratchathani, which his government ditched; with good reason. But the PM’s apparent lack of awareness of the project has raised alarm bells, because the Xayaburi Dam looms as an environmental nightmare, partly because it could open the door to a dozen or so dams on the lower mekong and destroy vast fish resources.
Trandem, of International Rivers, says the report failed to consider transboundary impacts, despite a warning from the mekong River Commission (MRC) that the environmental and social impacts will be irreversible and will be felt basin-wide should the project go ahead. “Given the quality of the EIA and the anticipated impacts, if this project goes ahead it would be unimaginably irresponsible,” she said.
But there are fears, based partly on recent history, that the demands from environmentalists may fall on deaf ears. The Lao government appears determined to press ahead with the project – despite reports it could cause tension with Hanoi because of huge public concern in Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, the mekong Delta. There are already reports of earth-moving equipment near the proposed dam site, about 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang
The sustainability of livelihoods – for the tens of thousands who survive off fishing in Thai and Lao villages south of Chiang Khong, the vast number of Cambodians living around the huge Tonle Sap lake, and Vietnamese rice-growers in the lower reaches of the river – is not at the heart of the decision-making process.
The Xayaburi Dam is a US$3.5 billion project that was first proposed in 2007. While the dam is being pushed by Laos, it is essentially a Thai development. It would be funded by four Thai banks – Kasikorn, Siam Commercial, Bangkok Bank and Krung Thai – and about 95 per cent of the 1,260 megawatts of electricity to be generated would be sent to Egat, Thailand’s state energy body. Thai environmental groups are suspicious and question how the PM could not be aware of this project, when he chairs the National Energy Commission, and must surely know Egat signed a memorandum of understanding for a power purchase agreement with Laos in July last year.
Thai villagers living adjacent to the river are fearful. At a public meeting about the dam on March 12, Kamol Konpin, the mayor of Chiang Khan, said: “As local people have already suffered from dams built upstream in China and watched the ecosystem change, we are afraid the Xayaburi Dam will bring more suffering. Our lives and livelihoods depend on the health of the mekong River.”
If the Xayaburi Dam goes ahead, more than 2,100 people will have to be resettled and a further 202,000 living near the dam will be directly affected by impacts on the river’s ecology and fisheries. More than 41 fish species, including the mekong giant catfish, will face the threat of extinction, according to fish experts and environmentalists.
Last October, a strategic environmental assessment (SEA), commissioned by the MRC, recommended a 10-year deferment in decision-making on dams on the mekong mainstream, including the Xayaburi, due to an incomplete state of knowledge and the huge environmental and social risks. But the attitude of the builders, purchaser and financiers tells a different story. They continue to be indifferent to the recommendations and warnings.
As responsible members of the global community, Thailand, Egat, Ch Karnchang and the four Thai banks have a moral obligation to consider the well-being of people who will be directly affected by the dam’s construction. At the very least, there should be a delay in approving dams on the lower mekong to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all possible negative effects. The risks involved are simply too great.