Construction of a giant controversial dam in Laos has been well underway since it began in late 2012. Laos is also set to push ahead with a second hydropower dam on the Mekong River this year in the face of growing concerns among its neighbors.
Opponents of these projects said their commencement would also kick off the construction of the 9 other dams planned by Laos on the lower reaches of the 4,900-kilometer (3,045-mile)-long Mekong, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity. The river begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.
Regional leaders have continued to beat the drum of safeguarding the mighty river, but in reality, the rhetoric has been more prominent than action, environmental activists say.
They say that although it is still not too late to put a brake on the damming frenzy and devise a plan to promote the sustainable development of the Mekong, success in doing so would hinge on the political will of governments to make scientifically sound decisions before forging ahead with any more dam construction.
But apparently, “powerful commercial interests have been allowed to ransack the Mekong River’s rich resources by building damaging hydropower dams which have yet to demonstrate proven and effective mitigation measures,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers, a California-based environmental group.
In November 2012, Laos broke ground on the US$3.8-billion Xayaburi dam project despite vehement objections from environmental groups and its neighbors who said the 810-meter (2,600ft) dam would unleash massive ecological changes on a river that feeds around 60 million people.
A technical review released in March 2011 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – a regional body established to coordinate dam projects on the river – on the Xayaburi dam is considered the most comprehensive analysis of its potential impact. It warns that more than 50 studies are still required before regional governments reach a consensus over whether the Xayaburi and other Mekong mainstream dams should be built.
But last September, Laos notified the MRC that it would forge ahead with the second dam, the Don Sahong, on the lower Mekong, despite calls from foreign donors to consult neighbors that face a trans-boundary impact on fisheries and the risk of deprived livelihoods.
A regional summit that ended recently in Vietnam dismayed environmental activists who had hoped for tougher stance against the dam-building binge.
“While [we are] pleased that Mekong leaders recognize the negative environmental and social impacts that hydropower development poses to the mainstream, we are disappointed that leaders did not condemn the current rush of dam building on the Mekong mainstream,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, said in a statement issued after the Mekong River Commission summit wrapped up April 5 in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Words without actions are meaningless,” Trandem said. “The Lao government must stop its free reign of Mekong mainstream dam building.”
Business as usual
Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’s deputy energy minister, confirmed to Thanh Nien News that the Xayaburi project is now around 30 percent complete and construction on the Don Sahong dam would begin at a site less than 2 km away from the Cambodian border in December this year.
Landlocked Laos, looking to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting the vast majority of its power – mostly to Thailand, has promoted the Xayaburi dam as a potential source of income and investment that will spur its small economy.
“The Lao government sees hydropower as something of a silver bullet to lift the country out of poverty and genuinely believes there is no alternative,” Philip Hirsch, director of the Australian Mekong Resource Center at the University of Sydney, told Thanh Nien News.
But given that the power to be produced by the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam is quite small, experts say an important question, in this context, is which are the more and less damaging sites for dam construction.
“Building a dam that blocks the major fish migration route in the model of one of the world’s most significant artisanal freshwater fisheries does not seem like a very sensible priority,” Hirsch said.
Environmental groups warn that the impacts posed by the Don Sahong dam bring a new level of risk to the biodiversity of the Mekong River, threatening to block the only channel of the Mekong that currently allows for year-round fish migrations on a large scale, while also wiping out one of the last pools of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
Viraphonh shrugged off such concerns.
“We are very confident that there will be no significant impact on the downstream of the river,” Viraphonh said, adding that Laos hired a number of independent experts to review the feasibility studies on these dam projects.
But those in the opposing camp do not buy into this assurance.
They say these claims are based on models which have never been tested in the Mekong, and there are doubts as to whether they could be successful on such a large scale.
“The stakes are high and continuing to build Mekong dams through a trial and error approach is reckless and irresponsible,” Trandem of International Rivers said. “The Mekong is too valuable for risky experiments.”
‘Right to develop’
Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are bound by a 1995 Mekong treaty to hold inter-governmental consultations before building dams. But none has a veto, and Laos will have the final say, though considerable diplomatic pressure can be exerted on it.
Laos and its neighbors – particularly Vietnam and Cambodia – have been at odds over the decision-making stage, or the prior consultation process, of the Don Sahong project.
While Laos maintains it only needs to notify its neighbors of its intent to build the dam because it is located neither in the tributary nor on the mainstream of the Mekong, the other two countries demand that the consultation process take place to decide over whether to build the dam, citing its trans-boundary impacts.
Vietnam and Cambodia reiterated their position at the Mekong River Commission summit on April 5.
Viraphonh, the Lao energy official, bristled at criticism that his country has provided no information to its neighbors about how it plans to address the serious impacts that experts expect to see on important migratory fishes species, saying Laos has nothing to hide.
He maintained that for a small project like Don Sahong, only notification would be needed. But, more importantly, he stressed that “Laos [also] needs to develop and for the right to develop, [we] don’t need a consensus or agreement [to go ahead].”
A Cambodian fisherman who lives by the Mekong River casts his net outside Phnom Penh. Regional leaders have continued to beat the drum of safeguarding the mighty Mekong River, but in reality, the rhetoric has been more prominent than action, environmental activists say. Photo: Reuters
Muddy the Mekong water
Addressing an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Russia in 2012, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang called for sustainable exploitation of the Mekong River, saying nations could soon get embroiled in conflicts over access to water.
“It would not be over-exaggerating… to view the water resources of the 21st century as the oil of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Sang said.
Environmental activists say Laos’s “unilateral” move to plow ahead with the construction of two controversial dams highlights the urgency to give the 1995 Mekong Agreement more teeth.
“Because the [treaty] and its procedures are riddled with ambiguities, the Mekong River faces a dangerous trajectory, in which unilateral interests are hijacking regional cooperation and well-being,” said Pianporn of International Rivers.
Meanwhile, experts have lamented that China’s dam-building spree in both Southeast Asia – in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar – and at home is threatening to have a serious impact on the lower Mekong.
International Rivers, a US-based nonprofit group that works to protect rivers, has been collecting information on China’s global role in dam building since 2008.
In Southeast Asia alone, it said, the number of Chinese dams that are under construction or are proposed include 10 in Cambodia, 26 in Laos, and 55 in Myanmar. Of them, four are to be built on the mainstream Mekong – three in Laos and one in Cambodia.
In the meantime, China’s upstream dams continue to cause worry due to the lack of information about their water flows, development plans, cumulative environmental impacts, and trans-boundary impacts. China has constructed or planned to build a total of 13 dams on the cascade.
Given the scale and size of these dams, experts say there are certainly other environmental impacts like withholding sediment and changed flow volumes and quantity on the lower Mekong.
They also say there are well-grounded fears that China could capitalize on the lack of political agreement there to gain a lot when taking into account dam development activities in the lower Mekong.
“China itself doesn’t need the power but stands to gain in two ways: First, work for Chinese dam-building and engineering companies,” said Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at Stimson Center, a US-based research institute.
“Second, China gains a lot of political influence,” Cronin said. “China has already largely displaced Vietnam’s former influence.”