Archive for July, 2012

July 26, 2012

Damming the future? Livelihoods at stake on Mekong River

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Samantha Page | | 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

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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)

July 26, 2012

Lao Dam PR Blitz Backfires

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An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai


Lao officials stumble in their public relations drive to market the Xayaburi dam project.

A public relations campaign by Lao authorities to deflect intensifying debate on the construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River appears to have backfired amid contradictory statements by officials.

Lao Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith announced at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting on July 13 that the dam project which triggered environmental concerns has been put off pending further studies, earning praise from many delegates.

He also said that for the first time since the project was hatched five years ago, Lao authorities would bring representatives of all “stakeholders” to the dam’s building site, drawing even more accolades for the rare act of transparency.

The twin moves were believed aimed at allaying concerns by donor nations that Laos was moving rapidly ahead with land clearing and construction work for the U.S $3.8 billion project even though a regional decision has not been made on whether the dam should be built.

The perceived openness by Laos was seen as crucial because the Xayaburi will set the benchmarks for nearly a dozen other dams that have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.

But as experts were digesting the Lao minister’s statement, the official media in Vientiane gave a different story.

It said the government will continue to allow Thai company Ch. Karnchang, entrusted with the task of building the dam, to continue with “scheduled” activities at the construction site, including the resettlement of affected villagers.

When groups which were invited to the construction site reached the scene, they confirmed that construction work was indeed continuing.

“While Laos’ decision to host a visit to the dam site is positive, it’s clear construction is advancing,” said Jian Hua Meng, an expert with global environmental group WWF—among the delegation of ambassadors, donors and NGOs which attended a meeting with the Lao government last week to listen to presentations about the project and inspect the dam site.

Initial plan

Lao Vice-Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong and the Thai builder Ch. Karnchang told the visitors that the dam is going ahead as per their initial plan, with any alterations to be carried out as construction progresses, WWF said in a statement.

Viravong also said that a “coffer dam” aimed at diverting the Mekong River’s flow away from the in-river construction site will be built by the end of this year, according to Meng, WWF’s sustainable hydropower specialist.

It would be the first direct intervention in the riverbed and marks a milestone in the ongoing dam construction, he said.

“Laos expects its neighbors to take a dangerous leap of faith and trust that the risks associated with this project will somehow be resolved while construction moves ahead,” Meng said.

“This dubious approach not only pre-empts the conclusions of the on-going studies, but clearly contravenes international best practice,” he said.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia’s main waterway, had ruled that the dam project should not proceed until further assessment was conducted.

The decision followed an earlier recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.

The United States has committed funds to support MRC studies on sustainable management and development of the Mekong River which will look at the potential impact of dams on the waterway, which originates in China and flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

“In the past, I have urged partner countries to pause on any considerations to build new dams until everyone could fully assess their impact,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a regional meeting in Southeast Asia this month after pushing Laos to conduct more studies on the Xayaburi dam that is opposed by neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam.

“Some studies have explored the benefits of generating electricity, but questions—serious questions—remain about the effects on fisheries, agriculture, livelihoods, environment, and health,” she said.

Further confusion

While international experts were left scratching their heads over the conflicting statements by Lao officials, Lao Vice-Minister Viravong caused further confusion as he tried to contain the damage.

“We have not started working on any construction on the Mekong River that is permanent,” he told Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper in a bid “to explain the other side of the story.”

“The media reports that suggest the Lao government has been lying are not true. We have been complying with the [MRC] agreement,” he said.

He went on to add that preparatory work on the dam project does not involve permanent structures and “is just to support the project development.”

Roads, apartment buildings for workers … are preparatory [work] and are commonly built ahead of the project to help save time,” he said.

But when the Bangkok Post sent a team to the construction site earlier this month to investigate the matter, it captured photographs of what appeared to be “major” construction work extending from the hillsides to the banks of the river.

A one metre (3.2 feet) high gravel dyke has been constructed more than halfway across most of the river width of 800 meters (2,624 feet), leaving only a small channel for boats to pass through, the newspaper said.

“On one side of the river bank next to the extensive ‘preliminary construction,’ a large concrete base is in place and sections of the hillside have been flattened. There are paved roads and buildings in some work camps,” it said.

Boatmen told the newspaper that the dyke had made it difficult to navigate the river as the smaller opening had stronger currents.

Contradict claims

Based on its own visit to the dam site last month, environmental group International Rivers said that construction and resettlement activities have been “significant” and contradict claims by Lao officials and the dam developer that only preliminary work has been done on the project.

Recent activities, it said, include dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed at the dam site, the construction of a large concrete retaining wall, and an increase in the company’s local labor force.

“Even before the river is fully blocked…construction will disturb the riverbed enough to significantly affect fish populations and the flow of sediments downstream,” Kirk Herbertson, Southeast Asia Policy Coordinator for International Rivers, said in a report.

“It will be impossible to collect baseline data and conduct accurate impact studies while construction is underway,” he said.

Environmental groups say the dam will block fish migration and sediment flow on the Lower Mekong, affecting the millions of people in Southeast Asia who rely on the river’s ecosystem for their food and livelihoods.

Thailand not spared

While Laos, being the dam host, is on the frontline of attacks from green groups opposed to the project, Thailand is also under fire—being the investor, project developer, and purchaser of 95 percent of the power to be generated by the hydroelectric dam.

A coalition of Thai environmental and community groups is planning to sue the Thai government over the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos.

“It is now time to look to Thailand for leadership,” said Herbertson. “Construction on the project is likely to continue on schedule until Thailand cancels its power purchase agreement, withdraws its investments, and orders Ch. Karnchang to adhere to the Mekong River Commission’s negotiations.”

Copyright © 1998-2011 Radio Free Asia. All rights reserved.

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July 26, 2012

How the Next 12 Months of Xayaburi Dam Construction Will Affect the Mekong River

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Thu, 07/26/2012 – 4:30am
By: Kirk Herbertson

The Xayaburi Dam site in Laos is abuzz with activity these days. Thousands of laborers and dozens of construction vehicles work around the clock to finish the dam on schedule by 2019. Access roads, worker camps, and transmission lines have been built. Villages are being resettled. The river has already been widened at one point, and a dike cuts into the river at another point. One of the project’s lead engineers, the Pöyry Group, told a delegation of visiting diplomats last week that the coffer dam—which diverts the river while the permanent dam is built—will be completed by next May. Soon after that, the dam itself will begin to appear.

Laos’ rapid progress on the dam worries its neighbors. The Mekong River is a shared resource, and what happens upstream in Laos can affect people downstream in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. According to the 1995 treaty that governs use of the Mekong River, the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam must jointly decide if the Xayaburi Dam will go forward. No decision has yet been reached. Cambodia and Vietnam have both requested that transboundary impact studies be completed before a decision is made, but Laos has said it will not conduct these studies. A regional diplomatic crisis may soon erupt.

Construction hasn’t started?

Proceeding with construction at this early stage would be a clear violation of the 1995 Mekong Agreement and international law. Not to worry, Laos spokesperson Viraphonh Viravong told the Bangkok Post last week. “We have not started working on any construction on the Mekong River that is permanent.”

Yet the 1995 Mekong Agreement makes no distinction between “permanent” and “temporary” construction activities along the river. It worries instead about any activities that will cause “harmful effects” to the river’s ecosystems. Similarly, international law (the rules that govern how states treat one another) kicks in when the harmful effects are likely to be transboundary, as they are in this case.

As it turns out, many of the construction activities already underway at the dam site are likely to have harmful effects on the Mekong River.

Yes, construction affects the river

As the Mekong River Commission noted in its 2011 technical review of the proposed Xayaburi Dam, “impacts during the construction phase are equally as important as those during dam operation.” (p. 32) Based on experiences with other dams, here are just a few of the impacts we might see in the next 12 months if construction continues:

  • The coffer dam and other structures will divert the river, which could prevent fish from migrating past the dam site and block sediment flows downstream.
  • As extra sediment becomes loosened during construction and mixes into the water, it could change water quality, habitats, and the ability of fish to breathe. This could lead to declining fish populations.
  • Loosened sediment could bury and harm fish eggs.
  • Pollution from the construction site could affect water quality and alter ecosystems, harming fisheries and agriculture downstream.
  • Disturbances to the river could affect plankton and microorganisms that are important to the stability of the river’s ecosystem.
  • Resettlement of local communities could create food security problems, based on experiences in the first resettled village.

What happens in Laos in the next 12 months will not just be localized. The construction phase is likely to have significant impacts that can be felt downstream in neighboring countries.

Pöyry, CNR, and the art of making scientific-sounding promises

Yet we still do not know the full extent of the harm that the Xayaburi Dam’s construction phase will cause. Laos’ consultants Pöyry Group and Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) do not know either. Despite Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s formal requests over one year ago, Laos has still not studied the baseline conditions of the river. How do fish behave in this part of the river, for example, and how do people downstream depend on these fish? It is simply not possible to understand the full extent of the dam’s impacts without first gathering this data. This is one reason why many scientists are skeptical about the unequivocal promises by Pöyry and CNR that the project will have minimal environmental impacts.

The 1995 Mekong Agreement is not perfectly written by any means, but is the best framework the region’s governments have for reaching a mutually acceptable solution. Where there are gaps, international law can provide guidance—such as the requirement to assess transboundary impacts before proceeding with any construction.

The time has come for the Mekong governments to bring Laos back into compliance with the 1995 treaty, and to return to the structure that the treaty provides. The first step, as the Cambodian government has already requested, is for all construction activities on the Xayaburi Dam to stop while further impact studies are carried out.

Ten more dams have been proposed for the Mekong River, eight of them in Laos. No one wants to repeat the chaos of Xayaburi, or to learn a few years from now that we could have prevented all of the harm that the Xayaburi Dam will soon bring.

 Kirk Herbertson

Kirk Herbertson is a lawyer and Southeast Asia Policy Coordinator for International Rivers.

July 25, 2012

Do Lao Government lies to their own people and the world?: Thai villagers to fight Lao Mekong dam in court

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Wed, 25 Jul 2012 10:30 GMT

Source: alertnet // Thin Lei Win

** This story is part of AlertNet’s special multimedia report on water. Visit “The Battle for Water” for more**

A man casts a fishing net on the banks of the Mekong river in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 8, 2011. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

By Thin Lei Win

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (AlertNet) – The inhabitants of Ban Pak Ing Tai, a leafy village in Thailand’s far north nestled between the mighty Mekong River and one of its tributaries, know only too well what dams can do.

This used to be a fishing village but nowadays local men are more likely to be found toiling away in corn fields or working as labourers than out on their boats.

They say vital sources of their food, water and livelihoods – from fish and riverweeds to seasonal wetlands for agriculture – are fast disappearing due to Chinese dams on the Mekong, which flows through six countries.

As a result, they vehemently oppose plans for big hydropower projects that would involve building dams on the Mekong in Laos, largely aimed at selling electricity to Thailand.

Village headman Phoomi Boonthom, 54, only fishes in his spare time now. Despite more than four decades of experience, he catches less than a kilo of fish after two sessions on the river on a hot June afternoon in peak season.

“This year’s been the worst in terms of catch. In the past, I used to get 10 kilos per round,” he told AlertNet, displaying a small box with some ice and fish.

The water level is too low and fluctuates too sharply for the fish to migrate, he said, putting the blame firmly on China.

“They built dams and blocked the water,” he said. “I also saw news on TV that if (Laos) finishes the Xayaburi and Pak Beng dams, there will be lots of problems, from here all the way down to Vietnam.”

The Mekong, flowing from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, is the world’s 12th largest river.

The Mekong River Commission says its fisheries have an estimated value of $5.6 to $9.4 billion a year, and provide food and livelihoods for some 60 million people living along its banks.

Experts say fish and other aquatic animals provide 40 to 80 percent of animal protein in local diets. And more than 80 percent of the populations of Cambodia and Laos, as well as communities in large areas of Thailand and Vietnam, meet their water needs from the Mekong basin’s rivers.


Much is at stake – and that is why, in an unprecedented action, Thai villagers from eight Mekong provinces are planning to take the government to court over the controversial $3.5 billion, 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower project in neighbouring Laos, which plans to export 95 percent of the power it produces to Thailand.

The dam is to be part-financed by Thai banks and its main developer is Thailand’s second-biggest construction firm, Ch Karnchang Pcl.

The plaintiffs accuse the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) of agreeing to purchase energy generated by the Lao scheme without an adequate assessment or public consultation, as required by Thai law.

“This is the only way we can fight (these powerful interests),” said Niwat Roikeaw, director of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, upstream of the planned dam. “We used reason and tried to present everything that could happen (because of the dam) but they didn’t listen.”

Niwat, representing Chiang Rai – and villagers like Phoomi – is part of the Thai’s People Network of Eight Mekong Provinces which is threatening to file a lawsuit on August 7 unless the agreement to purchase power from Xayaburi is cancelled.

“This is the first regional legal case on a transboundary project involving overseas investment,” said Pianporn Deetes, campaign director for environmental group International Rivers in Thailand.

“We hope it will set a new ‘standard’ for overseas investment from Thailand and the Mekong hydropower… for social and environmental responsibility,” she added.

The EGAT declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Ch Karnchang – which has a 57 percent share in the Xayaburi project – did not respond when contacted by AlertNet.


Xayaburi is the first of a dozen dams planned by landlocked, impoverished Laos, which has ambitions to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting most of the power generated by its hydro projects.

But critics say Xayaburi’s Thai developer has not properly assessed the dam’s social and environmental impacts, which could include damage to fish migration routes, farm land, food security and local livelihoods.

A report by the U.S.-based Stimson Center, Mekong Turning Point, said the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) identified the area for study as extending only 10 km downstream, when the impacts would clearly reach much further.

“(Xayaburi) is not only about water flows and destroying migratory fish population, but also upstream dams holding nutrient-rich silt that (Vietnam’s) Mekong delta needs,” said the report’s author Richard Cronin, a senior associate with the Stimson Center.

“Cambodia is worried about the Tonle Sap Lake and millions of Cambodians who depend on the fisheries for food and livelihood. You’re talking about people already living on $1 or $2 a day losing everything,” he added.

Cronin said such cross-border consequences mean the debate over Xayaburi and other Mekong dams goes far beyond basic trade-offs involving water and food.

“Laos has the sovereign right to go ahead, but it’s a question of what’s the cost going to be, particularly in terms of relations with your neighbours and regional stability?” he said.

Xayaburi has already angered Cambodia’s government and upset Laos’s biggest ally, Vietnam, over its possible downstream effects.

In December, under pressure from neighbouring countries, Laos agreed to put the project on hold, pending further studies led by Japan.

Nonetheless, International Rivers said in June it had witnessed Ch Karnchang resettling villagers, building a large retaining wall, and undertaking dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed – a claim denied by official media in Laos.

In mid-July, Laos declared publicly for the first time that work on the dam had been halted.

The Mekong River Commission has recommended a 10-year moratorium, but it is unclear how long Laos is prepared to wait.


For the communities who rely on the Mekong’s water, ecosystems and biodiversity for survival, preserving those natural assets is paramount.

But for investors and energy-hungry governments, the electricity that could be produced by harnessing the river’s waters in hydro schemes is an opportunity to generate profits and economic growth.

Nathanial Matthews, a researcher with London’s King’s College, said hydropower development in the Mekong region amounts to “water grabbing”, which he defines as “when powerful actors take control of water resources for their own benefit”.

The benefits are rarely shared with local people, he told AlertNet. They tend to be ethnic minorities and vulnerable people relying on the river’s resources who are more likely to experience any negative effects.

China, for example, has been accused of changing the Mekong’s natural hydrology and causing the devastating 2008 floods in northern Thailand by releasing water from upstream dams and destroying rapids to facilitate dam construction and boost trade.

Some activists and academics also say Thailand’s electriticy authority is overestimating future demand and emphasising the need for new capacity rather than efficiency gains.

The 12 dams planned for Laos would meet only around 6 percent of Thailand’s total energy demand by 2020 – an amount the southeast Asian nation could save through reasonable energy efficiency measures, according to the Stimson Center’s Cronin.

“If dams are going to be built, which I think is inevitable to an extent, we need to make sure the costs don’t outweigh the benefits,” Matthews said. “It’s not about being anti-dams. It’s about better dams.”

* See more from AlertNet’s “The Battle for Water” package *

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