Archive for April 9th, 2011

April 9, 2011

Conservationists protest Mekong dam – Laotian hydroelectric plan tests power of river commission

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By Jane Qiu

Conservationists worry that Laotian plans for six dams on the Mekong River will damage biodiversity and disrupt downstream communities. Marco Casiraghi / Cuboimages / Photolibrary

Controversy is building over a proposed new hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River in Laos, as the deadline for reaching a decision on the project approaches.

The Xayaburi dam is the first of eight that Laos hopes to build on the river.

“Xayaburi would be the first dam on the Mekong main channel outside China,” says Ame Trandem, a Bangkok-based campaigner from the environmental group International Rivers.

“What happens to Xayaburi will essentially determine the future of the Mekong — and a string of other dams that are being planned.”

On Tuesday, about 400 people gathered in northeast Thailand to protest against the project, which they believe would have an adverse impact on their lives, according to The Nation, an English language website covering news in the country.

About 95% of the electricity generated by the dam would be sold to Thailand and local conservationists plan to petition Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai Prime Minister, urging him to block plans to purchase electricity from the project.

The Xayaburi plans have been under way since 2007, when CH Karnchang, a construction company based in Bangkok, proposed building a 1,260-megawatt dam at the Kaeng Luang rapids on the main channel of the Mekong River, 30 kilometres from Xayaburi in northern Laos — an important spawning site for several migratory fish species, including the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas). A planned cascade of six dams in northern Laos, including Xayaburi, would ultimately block 69% of the fish habitat.

Projected to be 810 metres wide and 32 metres tall, and to cost over US$3 billion, the Xayaburi dam would have a reservoir of 49 square kilometres.

Over 2,000 people would have to be relocated to make room for the dam and reservoir. Many conservationists fear that the project could block fish migration, trap river sediments, devastate biodiversity and diminish seasonal flooding that sustains floodplain farming.

Approval needed

Last September, the Laotian government submitted the proposal for the Xayaburi dam to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body responsible for the sustainable management of the river. The commission is obliged to reach a decision by 22 April.

But the MRC is not well-disposed towards new dams. A few weeks after it received the Laotian proposal, the commission published its first comprehensive analysis of the potential impact of 12 proposed hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream — a review that was 16 months in the making. The Strategic Environmental Assessment concludes that “decisions on mainstream dams should be deferred for a period of ten years” because the risks of potential environmental and economic impact are beyond the capacity of the governments to address1.

And in late March, the MRC released its expert review of the documents submitted by the Laotian government, including the government’s environmental impact assessment (EIA)2. The conclusions were scathing.

The review highlights considerable uncertainties and knowledge gaps in the proposal. It says that the scale of the government’s EIA, which covered a radius of 10 kilometres seriously underestimates the ecological and social impact of the dam, while overestimating the effectiveness of mitigation measures such as fish-pass facilities.

Toothless tiger

But the commission is seen by some as toothless. For example, says Trandem, the Yali Falls dam in Vietnam on the Sesan River, a tributary of the Mekong, has compromised the livelihood of downstream communities in Cambodia over the decade since its reservoir was filled, demonstrating the MRC’s “inability to effectively resolve the conflict”.

And two countries that also share the Mekong, China and Myanmar, are not full members of the commission. Without them, the MRC will remain “an amputated river basin organization”, says Edward Grumbine, an expert on environmental policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Kunming Institute of Botany in Yunnan province, in an article published in Science3 this week.

“Individual countries have the responsibility to give up some of their decision making and learn how to share the resources in a cooperative and transboundary way and do the best thing for every country and for the river,” he told Nature.

Many say that the region’s enthusiasm for hydropower development is driven by China’s behaviour upstream of the Mekong River and its investment in many of the proposed dams. The country has four hydropower stations in operation on the river and, on 25 March, confirmed that it is building a fifth. More are planned.

“China has set the pace for hydropower development in the region,” says Grumbine. “Other countries now have a role model.”

As the 22 April deadlines approaches, “the authority of the MRC is also being put to the test”, says Grumbine. Some fear that Laos is so determined to build the dam that it may press ahead with the project even if the commission rejects its proposal.

“That would be an utterly reckless and irresponsible behaviour,” says Trandem.

  • References

    1. International Centre for Environment Management Strategic Environmental Assessment of Hydropower on the Mekong Mainstream (MRC, 2010). Here
    2. Mekong River Commission Secretariat Prior Consultation Project Review Report (MRC, 2011). Here
    3. Grumbine, R. E. & Xu, J. Science 332, 178-179 (2011).
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