Archive for ‘Mekong River Dams’

March 10, 2014

Sydney scientist leads Laos dam protests

Sydney scientist warns of Laos dam fallout

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/02/28/sydney-scientist-warns-laos-dam-fallout

A Sydney University professor says the Mekong River would be affected if a 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam was to go ahead.

Source AAP | UPDATED 11:02 AM – 2 Mar 2014

An Australian scientist has warned that a planned hydro-electric dam on the Mekong River in Laos could damage fish stocks vital to the hundreds of thousands of poor in neighbouring Cambodia.

Philip Hirsch, a professor at Sydney University’s School of Geosciences and the Mekong Research Centre, says the Mekong River, in its role as the “world’s most productive inland fishery” would be affected if the 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam was to go ahead.

“The overall hydrological impacts of Don Sahong will be quite small, but it has a major, major impact in Cambodia on the source of that country’s animal protein which the poor depend on for the bulk of their dietary requirements,” Hirsch told AAP.

The proposed Don Sahong Dam, is located in Laos’ Champasak Province and situated on the five-kilometre long Hou Sahong, one of the ‘braided channels’ of the Mekong River about two kilometres upstream of the Lao-Cambodia border.

The Don Sahong dam is one of eleven dams planned for the lower Mekong River. Laos has already pressed on with construction of the US$3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos despite criticism from environmentalists and donor countries, including the US and Australia.

A study by the Mekong River Commission – an intergovernmental body bringing together Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, has warned that damming the river could reduce fishery by 300,000 tonnes a year, having a major impact on a million people, especially in Cambodia.

Hirsch says the go ahead the Xayaburi Dam has raised fears of an “unstoppable momentum” it would be “more difficult not to be build a second, third until you’ve got all eleven” dams.

“When you have all eleven then the hydrological as well as the ecological impacts are significant in Cambodia and all the way down to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam,” he said.

A meeting by the MRC in January delayed a final decision on the dam, calling on ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, to further appraise the project. Hirsch said the delay marked a “silver lining” in the Mekong co-operation framework.

He said Cambodia and Vietnam have realised the potential impacts from the dam and have put in objections.

The issue will now be referred to the ministerial or political level, “and a lot depends on what happens at the council meeting”, so far unscheduled.

“It’s still a ways to go,” Hirsch said.

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January 14, 2014

It is an amazing. Today Laos already has 23 dams and 10 more of them on the way.

 

 

อะเมซิ่งจริงๆ วันนี้ลาวประเทศเล็กๆ มีเขื่อนแล้ว 23 เขื่อน กำลังสร้างอีกนับสิบ

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://manager.co.th/IndoChina/ViewNews.aspx?NewsID=9570000004121

โดย ASTVผู้จัดการออนไลน์ 12 มกราคม 2557 18:38 น.

ASTVผู้จัดการออนไลน์ – จนถึงสิ้นปี 2556 ที่เพิ่งจะผ่านมา สาธารณรัฐประชาธิปไตยประชาชนลาว ประเทศเล็กๆ ที่มีประชากรเพียงประมาณ 6 ล้านคน มีเขื่อนผลิตไฟฟ้าใหญ่น้อยที่เปิดใช้ดำเนินการแล้วทั้งสิ้น 23 แห่ง อีก 10 แห่ง อยู่ระหว่างก่อสร้าง และในนั้นมีจำนวนหนึ่งมีกำหนดแล้วเสร็จในปีนี้

ดร.บุนทะวี สีสุพันทอง รัฐมนตรีช่วยว่าการกระทรวงพลังงานและเหมืองแร่ (ขวามือ) สัมผัสมือกับประธานบริษัทสีเมืองกรุ๊ปผู้ได้รับสัมปทานโครงการรเขื่อนเซละนองจุด 3 ในเมืองนอง แขวงสะหวันนะเขตหลังพิธีเซ็นสัญญาศึกษาความเป็นไปได้ที่จัดขึ้นในเดือน ต.ค.ปีที่แล้ว ปัจจุบันมีโครงการเขื่อนราว 20 โครงการกำลังอยู่ในขั้นตอนสำรวจและศึกษาคล้ายกันนี้ อีก 10 แห่งกำลังก่อสร้าง 23 แห่งเปิดดำเนินการแล้ว จากทั้งหมดกว่า 80 โครงการที่จะผุดขึ้นมาในระยะไม่กี่ปีข้างหน้านี้ ลาวประเทสเล็กๆ กำลังจะเป็นดินแดนแห่งเขื่อนผลิตไฟฟ้า คงจะได้เห็นกันก่อนสิ้นลม. — ภาพ: เวียงจันทน์ใหม่.

เขื่อนผลิตไฟฟ้าที่กล่าวมาทั้งหมดมีขนาดตั้งแต่ 1 เมกะวัตต์ขึ้นไป ยังไม่นับรวมเขื่อนขนาดเล็กอีกจำนวนมากที่ไม่ได้ผลิตไฟฟ้าเข้าระบบ แต่ผลิตใช้ในชุมชนที่กระจัดกระจายอยู่ทั่วประเทศ สื่อของทางการอ้างรายงานประจำปี 2556 ของกระทรวงพลังงานและเหมืองแร่เกี่ยวกับความก้าวหน้าในแขนงผลิตพลังงานภาย ใต้นโยบายเป็น “แบตเตอรี่แห่งอนุภูมิภาค” ผลิตจำหน่ายให้แก่ประเทศเพื่อนบ้าน

หากนับจำนวนเพียงอย่างเดียว เขื่อนผลิตไฟฟ้าในลาวเริ่มใกล้เคียงกับจำนวน 28 แห่งในประเทศไทยที่พัฒนาการผลิตไฟฟ้าจากพลังน้ำต่อเนื่องไม่เคยขาดช่วงใน หลายทศวรรษมานี้และปัจจุบัน ไทยกลายเป็นลูกค้ารายใหญ่ที่สุดของลาว โดยเซ็นซื้อกระแสไฟฟ้าไปแล้ว 7,000 เมกะวัตต์

อย่างไรก็ตาม ในอนาคตไม่นานลาวจะแซงหน้าประเทศต่างๆ ในภูมิภาคนี้ไปไกลลิบเมื่อเขื่อนที่ก่อสร้างแล้วเสร็จ และยังมีโครงการเขื่อนอีกราว 20 แห่ง ที่อยู่ในขั้นสำรวจศึกษาความเป็นไปได้หรือศึกษาผลกระทบต่อสภาพแวดล้อมตามแผน การก่อสร้างกว่า 80 โครงการภายในไม่กี่ปีข้างหน้านี้

เขื่อนที่กำลังผลิตไฟฟ้าในปัจจุบันเป็นของเอกชนที่ได้รับสัมปทาน จำนวน 13 แห่ง ที่เหลือเป็นของรัฐบาลโดยรัฐวิสาหากิจการไฟฟ้าลาว สื่อของทางการกล่าว

ในปีที่ผ่านมา ทั่วประเทศมีระบบสายส่งไฟฟ้าเป็นความยาว 43,860 กิโลเมตร อยู่ระหว่างก่อสร้างในปีนี้อีกกว่า 4,300 กม. ปัจจุบันประชาชนทั่วประเทศใน 143 เมือง (อำเภอ) 6,797 หมู่บ้าน รวม 926,341 ครัวเรือนมีไฟฟ้าใช้ หรือคิดเป็น 85.84% ของทั้งหมด

เขื่อนผลิตไฟฟ้าที่กำลังก่อสร้างในขณะนี้ยังรวมทั้งเขื่อนน้ำเงียบ 2 ขนาด 180 เมกะวัตต์ คืบหน้าไปประมาณ 48.18% กำหนดเปิดใช้ในปี 2559 เช่นเดียวกับเขื่อนเซกะหมาน 1 ขนาด 322 เมกะวัตต์ ที่คืบหน้าไปแล้ว 16.20% และเขื่อนใหญ่ไซยะบูลีขนาด 1,680 เมกะวัตต์ คืบไป 10.77% จะเริ่มปั่นไฟในปี 2562

เขื่อนที่มีกำหนดจะเดินเครื่องปั่นไปเข้าสู่ระบบในปี 2557 นี้ ยังรวมทั้งเขื่อนเซน้ำน้อย 1 ขนาด 14.8 เมกะวัตต์ ซึ่งก่อสร้างเสร็จแล้ว 99% เขื่อนน้ำเงียบ 3A ขนาด 44 เมกะวัตต์ เสร็จ 80%

ยังมีอีก 3 เขื่อนที่มีกำหนดเดินเครื่องในปี 2558 คือ เขื่อนน้ำอู 2, 5 และ 6 ในภาคเหนือ ที่มีขนาดติดตั้ง 120, 240 และ 180 เมกะวัตต์ตามลำดับ กับเขื่อนน้ำกง 2 ขนาด 66 เมกะวัตต์ในแขวงอัตตะปือ

เด็กๆ เล่นน้ำกันในเขตตั้งถิ่นฐานเหนืออ่างเก็บน้ำเขื่อนนำเทิน 2 เมืองนากาย แขวงคำม่วน ในภาพวันที่ 28 ต.ค.2556 ต้นไม้ยังยืนต้นตายให้เห็น เขื่อนแห่งนี้ทำให้เกิดอ่างเก็บน้ำครอบคลุมพื้นที่ 450 ตารางกิโลเมตร แต่ก็ยังมีเขื่อนใหญ่กว่านี้อีกกำลังจะผุดขึ้นมาในไม่กี่ข้างหน้า ปีนี้ลาวมี 23 แห่งแล้ว ปีหน้าจะสร้างเสร็จอีกหลายแห่ง. — Rueters/Aubrey Belford.

นอกเหนือจากเขื่อนแล้ว การก่อสร้างโรงไฟฟ้าพลังความร้อนจากถ่านหินหงสาลิกไนต์ ขนาด 1,878 เมกะวัตต์ ในแขวงไซยะบูลี ก็มีความคืบหน้าไปกว่า 60% และมีกำหนดเริ่มปั่นไฟเข้าระบบเพื่อส่งออกในปี 2558 นี้เช่นกัน

ในประเทศนี้ยังมีโครงการผลิตไฟฟ้าด้วยพลังแสงอาทิตย์อีกจำนวนมาก และขยายตัวต่อเนื่อง ปีที่ผ่านมา รัฐบาลได้ติดตั้งให้ประชาชนในพื้นที่ห่างไกลได้มีไฟฟ้าใช้จำนวน 14,613 ครัวเรือน การผลิตไฟฟ้าโดยใช้ชีวมวล และเอทานอลก็เป็นรูปเป็นร่าง ที่เมืองพูวง ในแขวงอัตตะปือ มีกำลังผลิต 30 เมกะวัตต์

ในนครเวียงจนทน์ กำลังมีการก่อสร้างโรงไฟฟ้าใช้ขยะเป็นเชื้อเพลิงขนาด 5 เมกะวัตต์ โดยบริษัทเอกชนที่ได้รับสัมปทาน นอกจากนั้น ในลาวยังมีโครงการผลิตเชื้อเพลิงชีวภาพจากพืชที่ให้น้ำมันเช่นปาล์มน้ำมัน กับสบู่ดำอีกจำนวนมาก สื่อของทางการกล่าว.

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August 29, 2012

Study damns Mekong dams

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/NH30Ae02.html

Study damns Mekong dams
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK – Impoverished Laos is unlikely to cancel a Thai project to build a mega-dam across the Mekong River at Xayaburi, despite warnings from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that it could devastate the region’s rich biodiversity.

At least 1,780 known freshwater fish species have been identified in the “Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot’, which includes the Mekong and parts of the Chao Phraya River that flows through Thailand, revealed the 158-page report released last week by the IUCN, ahead of its world congress to be held in Jeju, South Korea from September 6-15.

IUCN, which is based in Switzerland and is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network, assists societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and biodiversity of nature and to ensure that the use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

“The Mekong ranks third (after the Amazon and Congo) or second in the world in terms of diversity of river fish, depending on whether the verified species total or the higher estimate is accepted,” notes the IUCN study, “The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in Indo-Burma”.

The study has strengthened a growing anti-dam movement that has united campaigners from several countries in the region that are likely to be affected by the 1,260-megawatt hydropower project being built at a cost US$3.8 billion.

“This is an unprecedented scientific contribution for us to know what is in the river between [the Laotian cities of] Luang Prabang and Vientiane,” Robert Mather, head of IUCN Southeast Asia, told IPS. “It shows how little we understand the river or the impact of the planned dam.”

The report will feed discussions about dams like the Xayaburi at the IUCN gathering at Jeju, which is expected to include more than 1,200 government and non-government organisations (NGOs) from 160 countries.

“This study will help to shape the real questions that need to be asked when doing EIAs [environment impact assessments] before building the dam,” Mather said.

Thai communities rallying against the Xayaburi dam this month lodged a petition against the energy ministry and the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) in the country’s administrative courts, charging these bodies with failure to inform the public about the environmental and social impacts of the dam.

Even so, Norkun Sitthiphong, permanent secretary in Thailand’s energy ministry, announced on August 24 that construction work for the Xayaburi dam was on track and that electricity production was scheduled to begin by 2019.

“The Xayaburi power plant plays a crucial role in Thailand’s power development,” the Thai official said, affirming the close link Thailand has as a major investor of this dam, the first of a cascade of 11 dams being planned to harness the lower waters of Southeast Asia’s largest river.

Earlier studies by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-government agency, estimate that the proposed dams could result in agricultural losses worth more than $500 million annually and reduce dietary fish intake of Thai and Lao people by 30%.

It could also result in the creation of reservoirs along the Mekong, studies by the MRC, in which Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are members and Myanmar (or Burma) and China are dialogue partners.

The MRC is yet to clear construction for the dam and announced in December that it would approach international development partners to study the dam’s implications before doing so.

Activists believe that it is not too late to stop the Xayaburi dam especially because of a growing movement against it.

“This is the first time local communities have gone to the Thai courts to stop a cross-border hydropower project,” said Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, a Bangkok-based green lobby.

“They are turning to a clause in the Thai constitution that requires government agencies to conduct public hearings on projects like the Xayaburi dam, which will impact Thai communities and Thailand’s biodiversity,” she told IPS.

“Their biggest concern is that the dam will devastate fishing in the Mekong, which has been their main livelihood for generations. Their campaign began out of fear that the Xayaburi dam will affect the annual fish migration in the Mekong.”

Loss of biodiversity is another concern. “The currency for measuring fish biodiversity is species, not kilograms, dollars or catch per unit of effort,” the IUCN report said.

Grassroots communities in Cambodia and Vietnam have expressed similar concerns in their “Save the Mekong” campaign.
The Xayaburi dam could, they say, threaten the livelihoods of some 60 million people living in the lower Mekong, who harvest an estimated $2.2 billion to $3.9 billion worth of fish annually – or about a quarter of the world’s annual inland-water catch.

Besides food security, this campaign, which has been endorsed by nearly 60,000 people, has also forged other bonds.

“The outcry has been strong because of the centrality of the river to millions of people, as well as to the region’s history and cultural identity,” said Carl Middleton, a Mekong River expert who lectures at the International Development Studies Programme at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“Just as the river is shared between the countries, so the proposed Xayaburi dam has brought many people together in opposition to the project,” he told IPS. “The size of the public response opposed to the Xayaburi dam is unprecedented for a hydropower project in the region.”

The protests have produced a mixed response from Laos, one of the poorest of the six countries that shares the Mekong, a 4,880 km-long river that flows through southern China, touching Myanmar and Thailand, and through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Laos has set its sights on becoming the battery to the region by tapping its rivers through large hydropower projects and selling the energy generated to its neighbors, such as Thailand. The foreign exchange, Vientiane argues, can help one-third of the country’s 5.8 million population living in poverty.

Laos has assured neighbors, Western donors and an intergovernmental river development body that it would not proceed with the controversial dam till the cross-border environmental and social impacts have been assessed. In July, Vientiane even announced suspension of the project.

Ch Karnchang Plc (CK), one of Thailand’s largest infrastructure builders and owner of 50% of the shares of Xayaburi Power, the controversial dam’s developer, suggests otherwise.

In mid-August, CK’s chief executive, Plew Trivisvavet, confirmed that the dam developer had not skipped a beat in its construction plans. “We’re still working on the project, as no one has told us to stop,” he told journalists.

(Inter Press Service)

July 26, 2012

Damming the future? Livelihoods at stake on Mekong River

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/damming-future-livelihoods-stake-mekong-river

Samantha Page | GlobalPost.com | Jul 25, 2012

Construction at the Xayaburi Dam site in July 2012.
(Samantha Page/GlobalPost)

NONGKHAI PROVINCE, Thailand and XAYABURI PROVINCE, Laos — Although his family has lived for generations beside the Mekong River, Itthapon Kamsuk thinks he might soon have to move.

During the dry season, from March to May, Kamsuk’s village in Nongkhai province in northeastern Thailand routinely runs short of water, and big fish are growing scarcer.

“The water level is already unpredictable, because of the dams in China,” the 45-year-old said. “Before dam construction, we lived peacefully. We could have fish all the time.”

Now, another hydroelectric dam is being built on the Mekong in a deal between the Lao government and a Thai construction company, despite an international agreement to protect water rights along the river and promises by Thai and Lao leaders to pause the project for further study.

The 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi is the first of 11 proposed mainstream dams that will affect agriculture, fishing and cultural heritage from its location about 100 miles upstream from Kamsuk’s village in northeast Thailand, through Cambodia to the Mekong River delta in Vietnam — the fertile heart of the world’s second largest rice exporter.

The dam will directly affect more than 202,000 people along the river, estimates International Rivers, a US-based NGO, including fishermen and farmers. Dams disrupt water flow, killing fish habitats and disrupting migratory breeding patterns. They also disrupt sediment flow, which provides nutrients for crops downstream.

More from GlobalPost: In Laos, a tale of two dams [VIDEO]

The Thai construction company, Ch. Karnchang, expects a 12-13 percent annual gross return on a $2.4 billion investment over its 29-year concession from the Lao government. The government, which will own the dam, also stands to profit handsomely by selling the electricity Xayaburi produces — largely to Thailand.

But the environmental and human costs of the project may far outweigh revenues that Laos, one of Asia’s poorest countries, expects to reap from its dams.

The only wide-ranging report on the project, a cost-benefit analysis from Portland State University, estimated that when loss of livelihood was considered, the development went from a $33 billion revenue source to negative $274 billion liability.

Sparse Living

Livelihoods along the river in Laos and Thailand consist mainly of fishing and agriculture, with some panning for gold.

“My mother has a piece of land she farms for self-consumption. If there is any extra, we sell it,” Kamsuk said. He owns a small food shop.

In 2009, the average salary in the northeastern provinces of Thailand was 118,200 baht (US$3,735) per year, according to DBS Bank. The region has the lowest per capita GDP in Thailand — about one-seventh that of metropolitan Bangkok.

The area around the dam site itself, northwest of Vientiane and due east of Chiang Mai in Thailand, is sparsely populated. Villages of a couple hundred people sit half-shrouded from river view by the jungle.

Every few kilometers, a solitary fisherman clings to the rocky bank, methodically dipping a net attached to two long bamboo poles into the current.

Some 2,100 of these Laos will be resettled away from the site.

Villagers still in their homes say they expect to move next year, but two villages were relocated in January. The new houses already have termites, and photos from the resettlement show gaps between boards that were nailed down still wet.

More from GlobalPost: Environmental concerns halt Lao dam

The resettlement area has little agricultural land, no river access, and no forests for foraging, said Teerapong Pomun, director of Living River Siam, one of the groups bringing the lawsuit.

“The are mostly fishing and agricultural people. They had a better life in the village,” he said. “They have only 0.75 hectares, and it is too late to plant for the growing season. They just sit at home.”

According to International Rivers’ Ame Trandem, relocated villagers were promised compensation, but that deal has already gone awry.

“They were told they would be compensated for everything, now it is just teak and fruit trees,” she said.

Downstream, Kamsuk is unlikely to get any compensation, so earlier this month he made the journey from Nongkhai to Bangkok, about 10 hours by bus, for a meeting with the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces, a coalition of civil groups fighting the dam’s construction.

Next month the coalition will file a lawsuit against the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), which agreed to purchase 95 percent of the dam’s projected 7,200 gigawatt hours per year.

The network alleges that EGAT failed to adequately notify the public or get public comment before signing the deal with Ch. Karnchang in October. The suit points out that no environmental review for the impact on Thailand has been done.

“None of Thailand’s agencies have made any move to prevent the impacts,” said Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, the lead attorney for the suit.

The World Wildlife Fund says a study on a similar project on a Mekong tributary in Thailand, found that 85 percent of fish species were affected, with 56 species “disappearing entirely” and “reduced catches” for another 169 species. The WWF predicts the dam would spell extinction for the Mekong giant catfish.

The change in water fluctuations from the dams in China has already damaged the fish population in the Mekong itself. Most of the big fish are gone, Kamsuk said, explaining why he has joined with a group of civic organizations to bring a lawsuit against the Thai state agency that agreed to purchase most of the dam’s energy.

Uneasy Neighbors

In 1995, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia signed an agreement pledging “to cooperate in all fields of sustainable development, utilization, management and conservation of the water and related resources of the Mekong River Basin.”

Under this framework, Laos has entered a consultation process with its neighboring countries over the Xayaburi Dam, but the agreement is somewhat less than binding.

“Laos is not seeking legal approval,” said Surasak Glahan, a spokesman for the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission, which estimates that 450,000 people will be affected. “The Mekong Agreement says the countries should reach consensus, but it doesn’t say a country cannot go forward.”

In a visit to the region earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Laos to adhere to spirit of the agreement and to further study the dam’s impact.

“The Mekong River Basin is one of the world’s most productive ecosystems. It’s really a miracle of the way it operates in this region. Millions — tens, hundreds of millions of people — depend directly or indirectly on it for their livelihoods,” Clinton said. “Some studies have explored the benefits of generating electricity, but questions — serious questions — remain about the effects on fisheries, agriculture, livelihoods, environment and health.”

Cambodia has already sent a letter to its northern neighbor, asking that construction be halted, and Vietnam suggested postponing the plan for a decade, while additional environmental studies were carried out.

In the face of this outcry, Ch. Karnchang has publicly said it is only doing preliminary work, but a visit to the dam site in early July showed a flurry of activity — not only on access roads and offices, but also on a flattened piece of land jutting into the river and on the hillside adjacent to the dam site.

Executives at EGAT and Ch. Karnchang did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The dam is creating tension between the Southeast Asian nations, Living River Siam’s Pomun said.

“You can see that people are already pointing to the Laos government,” Pomun added. “If the problem happens in Laos, it will become a big issue for the ASEAN community. Right now, even though they haven’t completed the project, Ch. Karnchang has made a lot of money by selling stocks.”

July 26, 2012

The Mekong river: Lies, dams and statistics

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/07/mekong-river

Jul 26th 2012, 8:55 by T.F. | XAYABURI and VIENTIANE

A DENSE cloud of diplomatic doublespeak hangs over the turbid waters of the Mekong. An amazing week of conflicting statements, stark contradictions and confusion has made everything about the site of a controversial dam project at Xayaburi, in northern Laos, as clear as mud.

The Mekong, which courses through the very heart of inland South-East Asia, is home to the world’s largest freshwater fisheries, about 800 different native species. Its rich biodiversity is second only to the Amazon’s. Through fishing, aquaculture and irrigation, it sustains 65m people.

Since September 2010 there has been an ongoing consultation process among the four riparian countries party to the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand—about whether the Xayaburi project should be approved or blocked. The dam would be the first of its kind. The government of Laos has repeatedly claimed it would heed the strong objections lodged by Cambodia and Vietnam, who fear that the dam’s side effects could decimate fisheries and reduce the flow of sediment needed by farmlands downriver.

There was a current of déjà vu swirling around Phnom Penh this month. On July 13th, at an annual summit for the foreign ministers of ASEAN, the envoy from Laos made a familiar declaration: that work on the Xayaburi dam has been suspended, pending further studies. Reuters, understandably, took this to be an official statement of fact from the Laotian government.

Only three days later Viraphonh Viravong, a deputy minister of energy, contradicted the foreign minister’s statement. A tour of the site, sponsored by the government of Laos, served to rubbish the foreign minister’s statement at ASEAN. As Mr Viraphonh made clear to a party of invited visitors, including MRC officials, diplomats and a few technical experts on fisheries, groundwork is going ahead after all, without any waiting for a further assessment of the project’s impact on the river.

In the MRC’s judgment, “the project is in an advanced preparation stage with…exploratory excavation in and around the river completed.” International Rivers, an NGO, made their own unofficial investigation of the site in June, observing that the river had already been dredged and widened. This despite the fact that in December 2011 the four member-states of the MRC had agreed on the need for further study of the dam’s prospective effects on the environment. The understanding was that no dam would be built until the study was completed.

Failure to halt the dam at Xayaburi would deal an enormous blow to the credibility of the MRC. Its authority depends on the possibility of enforcing co-operation between its members. Moreover the dam’s construction could trigger a major diplomatic rift between the four states themselves.

The initial stages of its construction are visibly under way. So has Laos decided to renege on its international commitments?

This is where things get murky. Mr Viraphonh claims that what observers witnessed was only “preparatory work”. He says the actual construction of the dam has not begun, nor has the river been blocked.

But fisheries experts say that long before the river is fully blocked, existing construction will disturb the riverbed enough to affect fish populations significantly. And even while the river flows, construction work will change the downstream flow of sediments.

The Laotian government has appointed two foreign consultants to help make its case. Pöyry Energy, based in Switzerland, and the French Compagnie Nationale du Rhône are trying to convince Cambodia, Vietnam and other sceptics that the Xayaburi dam will be benign.

Both firms argue that “fish passes” or weirs can be built to enable 85% of the river’s fish to get past the dam’s turbines. According to their plan, the fish could swim happily up or down the Mekong. But this claim has never been put into practice. Eric Baran of the World Fish Centre in Phnom Penh joined last week’s trip to the dam site. He observed that “there has never been a successful fish pass built for a dam the size of Xayaburi, anywhere in the tropics.”

Pöyry Energy’s previous report, a compliance review of the Xayaburi dam in 2011, was widely faulted. More recently, the firm’s parent company has been blacklisted by the World Bank for an unrelated charge of corruption and its CEO has resigned.

Laos might nonetheless esteem the views of its Western consultants. But it heard very different advice from America’s sectary of state, when she made her recent visit to the region. “I’ll be very honest with you. We made a lot of mistakes,” Hilary Clinton said in her opening remarks to the ASEAN summit. She was talking about dams built in the United States. “We’ve learned some hard lessons about what happens when you make certain infrastructure decisions and I think that we all can contribute to helping the nations of the Mekong region avoid the mistakes that we and others made.”

America has its own concerns too. It might worry that if the Xayaburi project goes ahead, China is set to build at least three more dams further down the Mekong, bringing its commercial interests ever deeper into the sub-region.

Cambodia’s minister for water resources, Lim Kean Hor, recently send a letter of protest to the Laotian government calling on them to “halt all preliminary construction and respect the Mekong spirit of friendship and international co-operation.”

The Mekong delta is Vietnam’s rice-bowl. The government has been arguing all along for a ten-year moratorium on dam construction on the river, basing its case on an assessment commissioned by the MRC and finished in 2010. Vietnamese scientists have warned that dams upstream would lead to devastating losses of fisheries and rice productivity and to the salinisation of cropland.

And finally NGOs representing people from the eight provinces in north-east Thailand are about to file legal action in the their country’s courts. They mean to force their national government to review the contract that the state electricity body signed, which obliges it to buy 95% of all the power from the Xayaburi dam.

Thailand’s government has already endorsed the position that Xayaburi dam should be put on hold pending further studies, though it has done so relatively quietly. If Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s conflict with Laos escalates, Thailand’s role will become critical.

The dam is financed by the four major Thai banks. The dam-builder is a Bangkok-based corporation, Ch. Karnchang. The north-eastern Thais’ campaign is aimed at persuading Thailand’s government to stop the project by blocking the banks’ loans. Such indirect tactics might be the only way left to save the MRC—and to preserve some semblance of international co-operation along the Mekong.

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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