Archive for November, 2012

November 29, 2012

“Lao people are not afraid of having dams,” Daovong Phonekeo, director general added

In the Mekong, it’s dam if you do, dam if you don’t

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By Thin Lei-Win

A fisherman throws his net into the water near the controversial Pak Mun Dam in northeast Thailand. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang May 29, 2006.

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Sompong Viengchan is shown standing in front of a long, narrow concrete water channel on a steep slope beside the Pak Mun hydropower dam in northern Thailand, on a tributary of the Mekong River.

The concrete fish ladder was built as an afterthought when environmentalists’ warnings about the dam’s impact on fish migration proved accurate, and formerly thriving fishing and farming villages in the area were deprived of their food and livelihood.

The ladder was a dismal failure, Sompong, a fisherwoman-turned-activist who’s been fighting against the dam for 20 years, said in “Mekong”, a new documentary on the world’s 12th longest river that was screened in Bangkok on Tuesday.

“Fish are supposed to jump up from this side to the other side but they can’t,” she said. “We told them it wouldn’t work. The fish of the Mun River are big, they can’t swim into this channel.”

The dam has been operating since 1994 but the 3,000 families affected by its construction still face difficulties today, including the disruption of fisheries, inadequate compensation and health problems, Sompong told journalists at the screening on Tuesday.

The government has partly given in to the villagers’ persistent demands by opening the dam’s gates for four months a year to allow fish to spawn, but this isn’t enough, she said.

Experts say fish ladders, used at high dams in North America and Europe for salmon which have “remarkable jumping abilities that enable them to scale waterfalls and fish ladders more successfully than any other group of fish,” are not suitable for the species in the Mekong, none of which are salmon.

Yet, as energy demand is projected to almost double in the Asia Pacific region by 2030, governments and construction companies are going ahead with new dam building  projects anyway.

The Lao government is using an untested fish ladder design in its controversial $3.5 billion, 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower project, aiming to allay the concern of its downstream neighbours, Vietnam and Cambodia, about the dam’s environmental, ecological, livelihood and food security impact on millions of people.


Xayaburi is the first of a dozen dams planned by Laos and one of more than 140 due to be built in the lower Mekong basin – which provides more fish to more people than any other river in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It’s part-financed by Thai banks and its main developer is Thailand’s second-biggest construction firm, Ch Karnchang Pcl. It plans to export 95 percent of the power it produces to Thailand.

In early November, Laos held a groundbreaking ceremony for the contentious dam, despite objections from environmentalists and neighbouring countries.

“If Laos wants to leave ‘least developed country’ status by 2020, (hydropower) is our only choice,” Vice Minister at the Energy and Mines Ministry Viraphohn Viravong, an engineer by training, says in the film, directed by Douglas Varchol.

The documentary screening and subsequent panel discussion, which brought together activists and experts from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos – a rare occasion – came at a time of heightened interest and debate  over the future of the Mekong, which flows from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea.

Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, is opposed to dams on the main Mekong River.

“You see a small one like Pak Mun has tremendous impact, and this is just on a tributary (of the Mekong), so what’s going to happen with the mainstream dams, the big ones like Xayaburi (almost 10 times as big as Pak Mun) and others? That’s what really concerns us,” he said.

Daovong Phonekeo, director general at Laos’s department of energy policy and planning, is confident Xayaburi will be a force for good. The Environmental Impact Assessment found trans-boundary impacts to be “negligible” because Xayaburi is over 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) from the Mekong delta in Vietnam, he said.

“Lao people are not afraid of having dams,” he added.


Nguyen Huu Thien, an ecologist raised in the Mekong Delta, disagreed, saying Laos has failed to properly address legitimate concerns which also include the loss of sediment that enriches the soil and the possible collapse of ancillary industries around farming and fishery.

“The government of Laos relies only on the consultancy companies… and that’s taking place outside the diplomatic process of the Mekong region,” he said.

“The technical proposals made by the engineers are only theoretical. They’re not proven, so our concern remains,” he added.

But everyone wants bright lights and air-conditioning these days. With wind and solar still considered prohibitively expensive, what alternative do we have?

For Witoon, the problem lies in the inefficiency of existing power stations and current usage of power in Thailand. For example, while Pak Mun dam generates 160 million units of power per year, three big supermalls in Bangkok alone consume about 270 million units, he said.

Power consumption has not grown as much as predicted in the past 15 years and Thailand now has more than 3,000 megawatts of solar power available, as well as other forms of  renewable energy, he said.

“But the system and policy don’t really promote that. It’s still very much driven by the big energy industry, the construction company which gets a concession to build a dam on the Mekong, and Thai commercial banks which have lent more than $12 billion to build dams in Laos,” said Witoon.

November 22, 2012

Save the Mekong, before it’s too late! – Soon Mekong dam will destroying the region’s lifeblood

11/22/2012 15:44
Finnish firm in hot water over its approval of Xayaburi dam

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Poyry gives go ahead to dam on Mekong saying the Laotian government has complied with its obligations. At the same time, it signs an eight-year agreement to monitor dam construction. Environmentalists and NGOs are outraged over the “conflict of interests”. Finnish authorities now vetting possible breach of ethics guidelines.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The controversy surrounding a report issued by a Finnish firm, Poyry, continues unabated. The study concluded that Laos can go ahead with the construction of the Xayaburi dam on the Laotian section of the Mekong River, despite opposition from other Mekong River Commission (MRC) member-nations since the project was in compliance with Laos’ obligations to them. However, the report is before Finnish authorities in Helsinki after an ethics complaint was made against the company over possible conflict of interest.

Otto Bruun, campaign manager of Friends of the Earth Finland, noted that the “company is fuelling a water conflict. This is bound to lead to serious negative human rights and environmental impact in the region.”

Lam Thi Thu Suu, co-ordinator of the Vietnam Rivers Network, said that “Poyry’s misleading information about the impact of the Xayaburi Dam has prevented co-operation in sharing water resources from advancing.”

The firm’s November 2011 report, commissioned by Laos, said that other commission members and stakeholders had been adequately consulted and the Xayaburi dam could proceed without the commission’s further approval.

This favourable assessment earned Poyry Energy an eight-year contract to monitor dam construction.

Friends of the Earth and 14 other NGOs filed an ethics complaint against Poyry Plc and the Poyry Group because in their view the contract is an obvious “conflict of interest”.

A spokesperson for the Finnish firm rejected the accusations saying the study was conducted in a transparent manner.

The Xayaburi dam project involves the construction of a US$ 3.5 billion hydroelectric plant with a capacity of 1,260 megawatts in a remote area of northern Laos.

It entails the forced removal of 2,100 residents from local villages with an impact on tens of thousands more.

A Thai company is in charge of the construction and Thailand would be the project’s main beneficiary.

Once up and running, the plant would make Laos the “battery” of Southeast Asia. However, the MRC has called for a ten-year moratorium on construction.

Another study released in February of this year indicated that dams on the river could reduce the fish cash by 300,000 tonnes a year with major negative consequences for more than a million people, especially in Cambodia.

Originating in the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong flows through the Chinese province of Yunnan before reaching Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

About 65 million people live along the waterway, earning a living from fishing (estimated to be around US$ 3 billion in value) and fish farming.

However, hydroelectric dams, including the one in Xayaburi, would threaten the 4,880-long waterway, the second most bio-diverse river in the world.

Earlier this month, the Laotian government issued permits for the official start of construction.
See also

04/19/2011 ASIA
Following Vietnam protests, Laotian govt puts off Xayaburi dam decision11/06/2012 LAOS
Vientiane go ahead for Xayaburi dam. Bangkok agrees, environmentalists at war

05/11/2012 LAOS
Cambodia “suspends” construction of dam on Mekong

03/25/2011 VIETNAM
Damming the Mekong: water and food at risk for millions of people
by Thanh Thuy

07/07/2012 LAOS
Xayaburi Dam, Vientiane promises halt on construction

November 21, 2012

Save the Mekong, before it’s too late!

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November 19, 2012 1:00 am

Dear Mekong River Commission Member Countries, Secretariat and Development Partners,

The construction of Xayaburi Dam is proceeding despite the concerns of Mekong River Commission (MRC) member countries. Laos and Thailand’s decision to proceed with the dam not only threatens the livelihoods of communities depending on the Mekong but also undermines the integrity of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

The MRC – which has a responsibility to make “every effort to avoid, minimise and mitigate harmful effects that might occur” from development and use of the river – has remained silent, while regional cooperation and the future sustainability of the Mekong River moves towards the brink of collapse.

The Save the Mekong coalition demands that the MRC, its member countries and development partners take immediate action to stop all construction on Xayaburi Dam for these reasons:

In a May letter to the coalition, Hans Guttman, the MRC’s CEO, stated that under the prior consultation process, “the country proposing the project is required to take into account the rights and concerns of other member countries”. However, there has been no assessment of Xayaburi Dam’s transboundary impacts or further public consultations, as requested by Cambodia and Vietnam during the April 2011 Joint Committee meeting. To our knowledge, no agreement has been reached by the MRC to close the prior consultation process or to approve Xayaburi Dam, which means that construction should not be underway.

The project is also under review by three administrative decision-making bodies in Thailand for a violation of the Thai people’s constitutional rights.

Xayaburi Dam poses a major threat to people’s livelihoods, food security and the ecological integrity of the Mekong River. The MRC’s technical review of the project has warned that Xayaburi Dam could affect 23-100 fish species and potentially lead to the extinction of the iconic Mekong giant catfish.

Laos claims that Xayaburi Dam has been re-designed to address the concerns of neighbouring countries. Yet Laos has not studied the dam’s downstream impacts, nor has the final redesign of the project been made public or independently assessed. Instead, Laos has resorted to unsubstantiated and misleading claims by the Poyry Group that the dam will not have downstream impacts. Studies by the region’s leading scientists as well as the MRC have concluded that Poyry’s work lacks credibility. The true environmental and economic costs of the project are not yet known. The technologies proposed by Laos and Ppyry are unproven and have never been used successfully in the Mekong or any other tropical river.

The Mekong should not be used as a testing ground for unproven technologies. Xayaburi Dam developers must prove that they can meet the MRC’s preliminary design guidance measures, such as the requirement for a 95-per-cent fish passage effectiveness rate. Without any evidence of the effectiveness of mitigation measures, Xayaburi Dam is in violation of the agreed-upon Mekong standard and risks causing irreversible damage to the world’s largest inland fisheries.

Since 2009, the Save the Mekong coalition has been demanding regional governments to cancel plans to build hydropower dams on the Mekong River. The MRC must acknowledge the tens of thousands of people who have expressed concerns over Xayaburi Dam at the local, regional and international levels, through numerous letters, petitions and protests. The concerns that have been expressed by people dependent on the Mekong must be paramount in the dam’s decision-making process.

By moving forward without understanding the full implications of the project, reaching regional agreement, or even abiding by the preliminary design guidance measures, Xayaburi Dam is creating a dangerous precedent for decision-making over future Mekong mainstream development. This has called into question the purpose of the MRC. Xayaburi Dam’s “prior consultation” process has failed in its responsibility to the MRC and to the wider public.

Our demands

_ The Xayaburi Dam’s construction and power purchase agreement must be immediately suspended, as the dam does not fully comply with the 1995 Mekong Agreement;

_ Laos and Thailand must publicly release the final design of the dam and have it undergo an independent technical expert review commissioned by the MRC;

_ The MRC must immediately hold a regional public consultation in order to allow the public an opportunity to discuss Xayaburi Dam and the future of hydropower development on the Mekong River.

There has never been a more urgent time for the MRC to uphold its responsibilities and speak out against Xayaburi Dam. Before it’s too late, the MRC member countries must use the 21st Asean Summit to demand the suspension of Xayaburi Dam and uphold their commitments to protect the Mekong River and its people.

Save the Mekong coalition

November 17, 2012

Laos’ “Different Face” of Poverty

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By Johannes Loh

November 17, 2012

While Laos has been the beneficiary of rapid economic growth, not all are seeing its benefits.

Laos is a country in transition that is enjoying robust economic growth as a result of its exposure to global markets, increased foreign investment in the country’s abundant natural resources, and a blossoming tourism industry. At the same time, more than a third of Laos’s population continues to live below the global poverty line of U.S. $1.25 PPP a day in a society where most of the population remains dependent on subsistence agriculture. Farming still accounts for 67.6% of total employment, compared with 16.9% of the population who is self-employed and only 15.5% who are wage-earners, according to the World Development Report 2013. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimatesthat 93% of women who participate in the labor force in Laos are employed in agriculture. Agriculture also still accounts for 29% of Laos’ GDP, compared with 19% for industry and 51% for services.

The official Vientiane Capital Region extends over 3,920 km2of which only 6% are occupied by developed areas while 68% are forest areas and 16% paddy fields. With a total population of just over 800,000 people, many settlements in the capital region are still villages. Even within the city of Vientiane itself, good roads are a privilege and residents often times must use dirt roads to access essential services like schools or hospitals.

As this suggests, booming economic development does not automatically translate into improved access to services for the poor. Without a system of social protection, the poor have to rely on friends and relatives in times of economic hardship. This reflects the fact that unskilled farmers working small plots of land face immense difficulties in trying to find a non-agricultural job to supplement their meager incomes.

In Phonethong Village, located on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital city, I encountered a woman named Kaum – a mother, farmer, laborer, and factory worker – living at the far end of the village. She and her husband own a small plot of land barely capable of producing a subsidence level output. In order to feed their family, they are forced to spend their nights laboring on other villagers’ farms. In addition, Kaum works a number of shifts at a nearby garment factory, earning U.S. $50 every two weeks, or approximately U.S. $3.57 a day. Despite these extra income sources, Kaum and her husband struggle just to feed their family of four, let alone to put their children through school or make capital investments in their farm to increase output.

“I would like to open a small shop to earn more money” says Kaum, “but nobody wants to give me a loan.” She informs me that her home does not qualify as collateral, which prevents her from securing loans to improve productivity or expand her farm.

Government programs for skills training or small business development do not exist, and the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Vientiane only have enough resources to reach a small proportion of the people who would benefit from their work. As Oxfam country director Dominique van der Borght points out, the country’s education system falls well short of delivering the services needed in a country that has a rapidly growing economy. Consequently, foreign firms operating in Laos often bring their own staff and laborers because local workers lack the necessary skills and linguistic training. Only the lowest level jobs are given to local residents.

Micro-entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of new opportunities in the emerging non-agricultural economy face a different kind of obstacle. Up until 2004, Laos had no laws governing microfinance institutions (MFI) and formal financial services were inaccessible to the poor. Eight years later a number of MFIs are offering savings and loan products, but they largely deal exclusively with clients who have collateral. Moreover, their branch network is focused on Vientiane where they a serve small, but established entrepreneurial class in the city.

In a way, the risk-averse business model of any financial organization favors individuals and companies who already have established their business model. For those without collateral, the MFIs are starting to offer group loans, but the reach of these initiatives is still limited. The MFI capacity to provide free business training and actively support aspiring entrepreneurs is even more limited. The MFIs themselves are still struggling to build reliable client bases to secure their long-term survival in an increasingly competitive market.

Founder and executive director of Laos’ first MFI, Ekphattana Microfinance Institution (EMI), Somphone Sisenglath, states that MFIs also try to emphasize to clients the importance of saving part of their incomes. “Savings are part of our mission,” Sisenglath tells me. “Access to credit is one thing, but if there is nothing left [at the end of repayment], they are still poor.” Accordingly, EMI requires that all its clients save 10% of their initial loan in order to instill in them the importance of building wealth.

Access to microloans coupled with educational opportunities to learn about small business management would go a long way towards building an additional stream of income for families like Kaum’s. Unfortunately, as members of the bottom echelon of society, Kaum’s family and countless others like them do not have access to these kinds of services.

Mr. van der Borght describes the situation in Laos as having a “different face of poverty.” He explains that importing solutions from places of scarcity may not work in a country like Laos, which has an abundance of natural resources but suffers from a chronic lack of infrastructure and a grossly underfunded social service system. Expanding access to education and financial services to families like Kaum’s, as well as integrating them more fully into supply chains, are crucial if Laos is to boost household income for the vast majority of its citizens working in agriculture and non-agriculture industries.

Johannes Loh is a research associate at the Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, University of Singapore.

Photo Credit: ATM Photo of Subsistence farmer, Kaum, with her children in Phonethong Village.

November 17, 2012

Laos risking decades of co-operation with Mekong dam project

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SCMP Editorial.
Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00 am

Agreement between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam on shared use of the Mekong River has long been hailed by the United Nations as a shining example of resource management. For 55 years, the countries have been able to shelve differences to co-operate and consult on the river’s development and use of water and fisheries. But self-interest has got the better of the Lao government, which has ignored pacts, its neighbours and environmentalists to break ground for a hydroelectric dam. At a stroke, it has eroded all that has been gained, while threatening regional partnerships, the livelihoods of tens of millions of people and rare species.

The dam at Xayaburi in northern Laos is in effect a partnership with Thailand; it is being built by a Thai firm and Thailand will buy 95 per cent of the electricity. After preparatory work began in 2010, Cambodia and Vietnam called on Laos to conduct studies on the impact. The four countries, through the Mekong River Commission, last December agreed to carry out greater research into its effects and those of 10 other planned dams. That was in keeping with the 1995 pact that set up the commission, binding the nations to agree on major schemes.

They have every reason for that – 60 million people directly depend on the Mekong for water, food and transport. It is the source of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries and second to the Amazon for biodiversity. Were the dam to be built, rare fish could be put at risk, fish stocks destroyed, and the sediment for rice growing in Cambodia and Vietnam affected.

The Mekong countries have for decades understood the importance of consensus in managing the river. They have realised that because of the dangers posed by dams, thorough impact assessments and full agreements are necessary before projects go ahead. Laos, in forging ahead without approval, has bulldozed the concerns of downriver populations and sent the worst possible signal for other hydroelectric schemes on the drawing board. Only by rethinking its position and halting plans is there a chance of restoring all that has been lost.

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