Damming the Mekong river
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Nov 3rd 2012 | from the print edition
In this section
- Power grab
- »River elegy
- What’s Strine for “Asian century”?
- Going underground
- Shuffled, not stirred
- Toil and trouble
- Unforgiving history
THE Mekong river, snaking its way through the heart of South-East Asia, has long sustained the world’s biggest and most productive inland fishery, supplying protein for around 65m mainly poor people from four riparian countries, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But scientists warn that this ecosystem is gravely threatened by the Lao government’s rush to exploit its water resources, egged on by Thai, Chinese and European energy companies.
The decision by Laos to push ahead with the giant Xayaburi dam makes it the first of what could prove to be a cascade of 11 proposed dams on the lower Mekong. Because the decision fails to take account of the consequences for downstream countries, it has raised tensions with neighbours. Having long pretended otherwise, the Lao government recently asserted that construction was forging ahead, and indeed was on schedule. That prompted a warning from the president of Vietnam, Truong Tan Sang, that “tensions over water resources are not only threatening economic growth in many countries, but also presenting a source of conflict”.
Cambodia and Vietnam have jointly called upon Laos to observe an agreement in December 2011 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to wait for further scientific study about the impacts of dams on the lower Mekong (dams already exist much higher up, in China, but their downstream impacts are limited). The MRC, made up of the four riparian states, is supposed to operate within a framework of mutual co-operation and consultation. But with a consortium of Thai banks backing Ch. Karnchang, the Thai construction company behind the dam, there is in effect an alliance between Thailand and Laos, dividing the commission down the middle.
With the MRC in disarray, some hope that an Asia-Europe summit in the Lao capital, Vientiane, on November 5th-6th will provide a chance for governments opposed to the Xayaburi dam to put pressure on the host nation. Many marvels of the Mekong face being wiped out, including the Mekong giant catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin, as well as the spectacular Khone waterfall. Scientists say the stakes could not be higher. Philip Hirsch at the University of Sydney predicts that the loss of the fish catch for millions of Asia’s poorest people will prove larger than the entire freshwater catch of Europe and West Africa combined.
The United States and Finland, the largest donor to the MRC, are among nations urging Laos to wait for more scientific data on the likely transboundary impacts. The Lao energy ministry has turned for justification to the work of international energy firms that include Colenco, a Swiss consultancy, Poyry, a Finno-Swiss power company, and Team Consultants of Thailand. But Jian-hua Meng of the WWF, a conservation group, argues that the standard of work done by Colenco for the Xayaburi proposal would be “highly unlikely” to be acceptable back in Switzerland. Meanwhile the Finnish parent company of Poyry has been blacklisted for corruption by the World Bank, and NGOs have urged Finland to investigate the Swiss arm for alleged violation of OECD guidelines in dealing with the Lao government.