Archive for ‘1995 Mekong Agreement’

July 8, 2013

Notes from the Field: Rapid Pursuit of GDP Growth in Lower Mekong Region Threatens Environment

The Asia Foundation

Rapid Pursuit of GDP Growth in Lower Mekong Region Threatens Environment

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June 26, 2013


Next week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join leaders from the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) partner countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – for the sixth LMI Ministerial Meeting in Brunei, Darussalam. The meeting will be held on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum Ministerial Meeting, with the theme Our People, Our Future Together,” stressing the importance for the people of ASEAN to work together for the development of the region.

The Mekong River is the seventh largest in the world, covering an area of 1.9 million square kilometers. The region is rich in natural resources including fisheries, forests, biodiversity, and minerals. Photo/Bart Verweij

The LMI was created in 2009 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and foreign ministers from the partner countries to enhance cooperation among the Lower Mekong countries in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development. Much is at stake: communities in the region are experiencing great changes from fast-paced economic growth averaging five to seven percent annually. While recent growth has reduced poverty and supported progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the rapid pursuit of GDP growth, urbanization, infrastructure development, raw materials, and energy sources also jeopardizes the region’s natural resource base, food security, and livelihoods. Coordinated efforts will be necessary to ensure that equitable and sustainable development benefits all 60 million people in the region.

The Lower Mekong region is bound by the Mekong River, whose source originates in China and empties into the South China Sea in Vietnam. The river is the seventh largest in the world, covering an area of 1.9 million square kilometers. The region is rich in natural resources including fisheries, forests, biodiversity, and minerals. Throughout my career in international development, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the river at different locations and times, always impressed by its vital role as a source of livelihood that communities and ecosystems depend on deeply. But recent fast-paced developments, un-balanced by the voices and perspectives of the very people whose lives depend on it, are threatening this system.

Encounters with the Mekong

My first glimpse of the Mekong River was when I was traveling in 2007 in Yunnan Province, China, where the river there is known as the Lancang River. I was distinctly aware of its direct source: cold melt water from the Himalayan Glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, a few thousand miles to the north, having recently traveled there. Climate change, however, is projected to decrease China’s glacial coverage by 27 percent by 2050, which would significantly diminish water availability for communities throughout the Mekong region.

My next encounter with the Mekong River was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2010, where the river flows through the capital city, and during the rainy season, reverses course to flow into Tonle Sap Lake, via a tributary of the same name, a unique phenomenon that is critical for supporting the rich ecosystem, including rare plant, bird, and fish species. Roughly 75 percent of people in the region rely on agriculture and fisheries for their livelihoods, and freshwater fish from the Mekong River and its tributaries, including Tonle Sap, which is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, provide 47 to 80 percent of their animal protein.

Development in the Region

While recent growth has reduced poverty in the Lower Mekong Region, the rapid pursuit of GDP growth also jeopardizes the region’s natural resource base, food security, and livelihoods. Photo/Marco Ryan

However, regional development projects threaten the food security for these dependent communities who make up the majority of the region’s population. Over the past several years, a shift in the financing of development projects in the region has been occurring, from traditional development assistance from multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to more regionally-based sources, including the private sector, banks, and national governments. These regional investments, which include projects like dams, pipelines, and railroads, in many cases do not have concrete safeguards against negative social and environmental impacts. They also have significant implications for neighboring countries, which requires broader ecosystem, participatory, and basin-wide approaches to development.

My third glimpse of the Mekong River was in the Lao capital of Vientiane in 2011, also the home of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the regional body consisting of four Lower Mekong country members (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam) to coordinate information on development projects that have regional implications, including dam construction. Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian companies are currently financing 11 dams planned for construction along the mainstream Mekong – nine in Laos and two in Cambodia. The Social and Environmental Assessment (SEA) conducted on these dams for the MRC concluded that their cumulative impact would significantly alter downstream flows and water levels, block fish migration, decimate economically crucial and endangered species, trap silt needed to sustain rice production, and impact the livelihoods of millions of people in the region. The Xayaburi Dam in particular, which is planned for construction in Laos on the mainstream Mekong, has been controversial for its potential impacts to ecosystem dynamics and local livelihoods. However, the dam is set for development, despite opposition and concerns by the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, civil society, and environmental groups.

Public Participation is Needed

Meaningful public engagement and participation on these regional development projects is limited, and access to information by the communities varies, as do the direct impacts that the projects have across the region. In Cambodia, civil society can access some environmental information, but often lack the technical capacity to provide meaningful input. While organizations monitor and advocate upwards, there is little time spent on disseminating information widely and educating the general public. In Laos, non-profit associations were granted defined legal status quite recently, in 2009, and their capacity is still limited. Similarly in Myanmar, recent reform measures created opportunities for increased civil society engagement, but basic capacity-building is needed. While Thailand’s 2007 Constitution requires public participation on natural resource protection, the public is often unaware of important environmental information, and elevating issues to the national level is a challenge. In Vietnam, there are existing laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment, but their implementation and enforcement is problematic. Interaction between civil society and the government is growing but still very limited, and much remains to be done to broaden the space for public participation that can lead to more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

Civil society in the region is beginning to coordinate through networks and coalition groups on issues of mutual interest in response to the regional impacts of large-scale projects. To date, however, civil society initiatives have not been able to significantly influence regional development project decisions. Their efforts currently have little chance of success when they challenge governments and powerful economic and financial stakeholders with vested interests in seeing projects implemented as quickly as possible.

At the same time, regional bodies, such as the ADB, MRC, ASEAN, and the LMI, coordinate efforts on shared regional interests including economic integration, development in the Mekong River Basin, trade, environment, health, education, and infrastructure, and have made concerted attempts to engage the public on development projects. But in practice these bodies have not yet been effective in engaging local communities, and regional multi-stakeholder engagement has yet to ensure non-state actors can influence regional development decisions. Let’s hope leaders at Monday’s ministerial meeting bring citizens’ voices and concerns to the table.

Lisa Hook is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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June 27, 2013

Laos Dams: Warning over Laos dam construction

Work to construct the yet-to-be-approved Don Sahong hydropower dam project continues to progress, posing a major threat to the livelihoods of families living on the Mekong, despite the fact a consultation into the scheme has not been carried out, it has been warned.

A Daring Fisherman Crosses Khone Falls in Southern Laos, the area in which the Don Sahong hydropower dam project is getting underway, even though the required public consultations are yet to be carried out. (Photo: International Rivers)

Environmental campaign group International Rivers visited the Don Sahong dam site last week in the Khone Falls area of Southern Laos, less than two kilometres upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

International Rivers claim that “numerous activities” are underway at the project site, even though the Laos government has not yet initiated the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) required consultation process, set out in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia program director, said work to prepare for building the dam’s access roads and bridge has started. The actual construction of the roads and bridge is apparently scheduled to begin next year.

The group also raised concerns that work had begun on the project last September, when locals reported that dam builders had blasted a waterfall near the Don Sahong site.

Last week, villagers told International Rivers that construction on the Don Sahong dam’s bridge and access roads will begin in 2014, Ms Trandem said, adding that the dam’s developer, Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad, has hired local people to place markers indicating which land will be used for the bridge and roads.

The Don Sahong project is the second of 11 proposed hydropower dam schemes for the Mekong. Work on the first – the Xayaburi dam in Laos – began last year. Much of the electricity generated by the dams will be exported to Thailand.

International law and the Mekong Agreement prohibit one government from starting to implement projects on the river while the other affected governments are still evaluating proposals for any such scheme.

But International Rivers say developers began work at the Xayaburi dam site, signed the power purchase agreement with Thailand, and signed financing agreements with Thai banks, while discussions at the Mekong River Commission were still underway.

“It’s clear that the Don Sahong dam is following the same trajectory that the Xayaburi dam took, in which secrecy and illicit project implementation topples regional cooperation,” Ms Trandem said.  “Sadly, what is happening at Khone Falls is emblematic of the failure of the MRC to address the problems related to the Xayaburi dam.”

“The Xayaburi dam has set a dangerous precedent that undermines future regional cooperation and illustrates the need for urgent reform of the MRC’s prior consultation process before additional projects proceed.”

Activists claim the dams will hurt fisheries, agriculture and food security downstream in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, destroying the livlihoods of people who rely on the river as a source of food and income. No compensation will be provided to fishermen who can no longer use traditional fish traps.

“The Don Sahong dam would be an environmental calamity,” said Ms. Pianporn Deetes, International Rivers’ campaign coordinator for Thailand. “The project is aimed at increasing Mega First Corporation’s profits while exacerbating the already known and very serious impacts of the dam on regional fisheries and biodiversity.

“If built, the Don Sahong dam will inevitably and irreversibly block the only channel in the Khone Falls that fish can migrate upstream and downstream during the dry season, leading to predictably serious impacts on fish catches, species and the livelihoods of millions of people in the region.”

The Don Sahong dam will not only block the only channel in the Khone Falls area that allows for year-round fish migration, but also threatens one of the few remaining habitats of the already endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, she added.

Ms. Kumpin Aksorn from the Thai community organisation Hug Namkhong joined International Rivers on the site visit.

“The Mekong River’s fisheries do not stop at each country’s political boundaries. Projects affecting the river need to be decided on a regional basis,” she said. “The Don Sahong and other mainstream dams are foolhardy and dangerous, as they threaten to fundamentally change the nature of the river and its resources, which serves as the lifeblood for millions of people in the region.

“Before cross-border tensions grow, full public disclosure of the project’s environmental impact assessment is urgently required, as well as meaningful consultations with affected communities and neighboring countries.”

A report by the Mekong River Commission published last year found that the construction of 12 proposed dams in the lower Mekong River would cause serious problems for the two million people living downstream in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, because the dams would stop 55 per cent of the river from flowing freely.

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June 25, 2013

Mekong River: River be damned – ร่วมปกป้องแม่น้ำโขง

ฟังเสียง “ผู้เสียสละ” ชาวบ้านที่อพยพออกจากหัวงานเขื่อนไซยะบุรีที่บ้านนาตอใหญ่ ห่างออกไปจากแม่น้ำโขง 35 กม.วันนี้หนังสือพิมพ์ The Age ของออสเตรเลีย รายงานข่าวสืบสวนสอบสวนกรณีเขื่อนบนแม่น้ำอู โดยบริษัทไซโนไฮโดร จากจีน และเขื่อนไซยะบุรี กั้นแม่น้ำโขง ในประเทศลาว สร้างโดยบริษัท ช.การช่างนักข่าวลงพื้นที่แปลงอพยพ ถามเรื่องราวจากชาวบ้าน “เราต้องมาเริ่มจากศูนย์” ครูในโรงเรียนกล่าวชาวบ้านกลุ่มแรกประมาณ 300 คนถูกย้ายจากริมแม่น้ำโขงมายังหมู่บ้านแห่งใหม่ “คนเฒ่าคนแก่ไม่อยากย้ายมา” ผู้เฒ่าชื่อคำเขียว กล่าว “เราเกิดริมน้ำโขง พ่อแม่ก็เกิดริมโขง บางคนเห็นบ้านใหม่ที่นี่ถึงกับร้องไห้”

“หากินยาก เมื่อก่อนได้ร่อนทองริมน้ำโขงหารายได้ แต่ตอนนี้ไม่มีอะไรทำเลย…”

ชาวบ้าน 25 ครอบครัวหนีกลับไปยังแม่น้ำโขง ไปจับปลา-หากิน แบบที่เคยทำก่อนมีเขื่อน

—– ช.การช่างเอ๋ย สร้างเขื่อนไซยะบุรีตั้งแสนล้าน ดูแลชาวบ้านให้ดีกว่านี้หน่อยได้ไหม เขาอยู่กันมาก่อน “เขื่อน” ของคุณนะ

หยุด เขื่อนไซยะบุรี(stop Xayaburi Dam)


— at Xayaburi.


River be damned

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By Dave Tacon

June 14, 2013, 3 a.m.

A boy stands on the banks of the Mekong River near the relocation site for a Lao village, which was moved to make way for the Xayaburi Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

As the narrow longtail boat glides downstream from the dusty hamlet of Nong Kiew towards the golden temples of Luang Prabang, mirror images of jungle, vertical limestone cliffs and impossibly steep mountains shimmer in the waters of the Nam Ou River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.

Endangered Asian elephants and Indochinese tigers still roam the upper reaches of the river within Phou Den Din National Protected Area, one of 20 national parks in Laos. This is the beauty that tourists, many Australians among them, come so far to see.

Yet this undeveloped region in northern Laos is about to be jolted into the industrial age. Three hours downriver from Nong Kiew, a scar of ochre-coloured dirt and rock stretches for kilometres: construction of the Nam Ou 2 Dam is steamrolling ahead.

”We started early this year and we’ll be finished in three years,” boasts a Chinese engineer dwarfed by a colossal concrete dam wall. Conversation is brought to an abrupt halt when his superior arrives. ”You have to leave,” he says. ”We don’t want pictures of this posted on Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter].”

The 450 kilometre-long Nam Ou, one of the few Lao rivers traversable by boat for its entire length, will soon be severed seven times over by a 350-kilometre stretch of hydropower dams built and maintained by Chinese giant Sinohydro.

The Nam Ou 2 belongs to the first phase of the $1.95 billion project, which is expected to be operational by 2018. Details surrounding the project are scant. Even the final destination for the proposed 1146 megawatts of hydropower is unclear, although the Lao government claims the first three dams, Nam Ou 2, 5 and 6, will provide electricity for domestic consumption.

Details of the other dams have not been made public. Ultimately, the Phou Den Din National Protected Area will be partially inundated by the two northernmost dams, the Nam Ou 6 and 7, in violation of Sinohydro’s own environmental policy against development inside national parks. A pristine waterway and one of the last intact ecosystems in the region will change forever.

Despite concerns of environmentalists and objections by neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the tiny, landlocked nation of Laos is following China’s lead in its exploitation of the Mekong River and its tributaries.

China already has five hydropower dams operating and three more are planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong, the river that begins in the Tibetan Plateau and continues through China and five south-east Asian nations on its way to the South China Sea. Questions remain as to whether the river and those who depend on it for their livelihoods can survive.

”The government tells us that this will develop Laos,” says 65-year-old fisherman Thongsai Chanthalangsy, speaking at his village half an hour downstream from the Nam Ou 2 construction site. ”It’s not for the people,” he continues, ”the power will mostly be sold overseas. We can’t talk to the government. We have to follow what they say.”

Chanthalangsy has been advised that his home, which falls within the catchment of the planned Nam Ou 1 dam, will not be submerged, yet many other homes in his village will be.

”They will build more dams and the problems will get worse. When it’s finished there might not be enough water for our gardens and not enough fish to catch. There won’t be compensation. We’ll have to move.”

The Mekong and its tributaries are the front line of a massive development drive by Laos’ communist, one-party leadership to lift the nation from the ranks of Asia’s poorest countries.

Although hydroelectric power will bring much-needed revenue to the impoverished country, many fear that dams will cost dearly Laos, and all those for whom the Mekong is a lifeblood. In Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, more than 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food, income and transportation.

Ground zero for the Mekong is the gargantuan Xayaburi Dam, a project led by Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang. Dynamite and heavy machinery have already blasted, gouged and scraped away entire mountainsides above both banks of the swift-flowing waters about 30 kilometres from the provincial town of Xayabury.

Steep, winding, unmade roads carry a constant procession of trucks, earth movers, workers and occasionally armed soldiers to the expansive site. The $3.4 billion price tag of 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high Laos-Thai mega dam is being footed by a conglomerate of six Thai banks.

On its completion in 2019, around 95 per cent of the hydropower dam’s 1260 megawatts will be exported to Thailand. This is almost a third of the power generated by the 16 major dams of Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, built over a period of 25 years to generate around 3700 megawatts.

Along with the immediate environmental impact of a project of such magnitude, hundreds of villagers have been resettled to make way for the dam.

At the new village, Natornatoryai, close to the construction site, teacher Khao Thevongsa, 28, is dissatisfied with the location, with its steep hills of barely arable land and the constant stream of traffic to the site.

She hopes that the dam may become a tourist attraction in its own right. ”We have to start from zero,” she says, ”but when the dam is finished maybe tourists will come here to see it and we can earn more money.” Almost every answer to a question begins with, ”We don’t have a choice.”

About 300 were first shifted to Natornatoryai, which is about 35 kilometres from the river. ”The old people didn’t want to move here,” says 63-year-old Khamkeo Daovong as her daughter-in-law and child play on her concrete floor. ”I was born near the river and so were my parents. Many people cried when they saw their new homes.”

Daovong complains that her house was unfinished when she moved in. The mismatched cinder-block and terracotta bricks were paid for out of her own pocket to keep out the dust and wind. Compensation in the form of rice and about $16.40 in cash per month dried up after one year instead of the promised three.

”I was given pigs and ducks to raise, but it’s very difficult to make money. I used to pan for gold, but now I just do nothing.”

According to non-government organisation International Rivers, about 25 families have already left the village to return to the river to fish, tend their river bank gardens and pan for gold.

For those who live in Laos, open opposition to the dam is unthinkable. The Lao regime has a history of ruthlessly silencing dissent.

On December 15 last year, Sombath Somphone, 62, a prominent campaigner for the environment and the rural poor, and a champion for sustainable development, was abducted from a police roadblock by two unidentified men in the nation’s capital, Vientiane.

Somphone, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often referred to as Asia’s Nobel prize, has not been seen or heard from since. The Laos government denies any involvement. The official explanation for his disappearance was a ”business dispute”, although the activist has no business interests.

The incident brought rare international attention to Laos, as then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, led calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into Somphone’s whereabouts and wellbeing.

International calls to the Laos government for action and information on Somphone remain unheeded. In a recent statement by New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, Asia director Brad Adams accused the Lao government of direct involvement in the activist’s disappearance.

”Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. ”The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility.”

The reasons for the activist’s disappearance are unclear. But Somphone’s abduction has worsened an already fearful climate in Laos’ environmental grassroots organisations.

Land rights and enforced disappearances aside, dams on the Mekong have serous ramifications far beyond the borders of Laos. The Xayaburi Dam is the first of 11 dams planned for the Lower Mekong River, nine of which are in Laos. Environmentalists have already blamed China’s five Mekong dams, as well as drought, for some of the lowest water levels seen on the river in 50 years. China denies it is responsible.

On top of providing crucial sediment for arable land downstream, the Mekong sustains the world’s largest inland fishery, with 877 species. According to conservation group Great Rivers Partnership, this supplies an industry worth between $3.84 billion and $6.89 billion.

Fish are a foundation of regional food security. In Cambodia, 80 per cent of the nation’s animal protein is provided by freshwater fisheries. Alarmingly, a study of the proposed 11 Lower Mekong hydropower dams by the International Centre of Environmental Management concluded that the dams would reduce fish numbers by 26 per cent to 42 per cent.

Regional famine is a worst-case scenario. Claims by the Lao government and Xayaburi dam officials that fish ladders will allow safe passage for migratory Mekong fish species have been met with great scepticism.

Organised dissent to the Xayaburi Dam has mainly come from Thailand. A flotilla of Thai fishermen and villagers who worked the Mekong travelled to Vientiane to protest during the Asia-Europe Meeting.

In April, delegates from eight Thai provinces on the Mekong were joined by protesters from Cambodia as they occupied the entrance to the headquarters of the dam’s construction company, Cr Karnchang, one of the dam’s financiers.

Although limited at present, opposition to dams on the Mekong may be about to rise rapidly as more dams are built and their impact becomes apparent. Beyond street and river protests, there are rumblings at the highest levels of government that threaten to become a diplomatic stoush.

Should the worst fears of environmentalists materialise, countries downstream from the dams stand to bear the brunt of any damage to the Mekong’s ecosystem. Although Vietnam and Cambodia have plans for their own hydropower projects, they have already objected to the Xayaburi Dam through the Mekong River Commission, of which Thailand and Laos are also members.

Both countries have argued that work on the Xayaburi Dam breaks an agreement forged in December 2010 that no dams would be built until studies on negative trans-boundary environmental impacts were completed.

Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong dams. Such concerns have been brushed aside by Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines, Viraphonh Viravonghas, who claimed the extensive construction is merely ”preparatory work”.

”Laos has simply ignored the requests repeatedly made by Cambodia and Vietnam to study the trans-boundary impacts of the dam,” says Ame Trandem, south-east Asia program director at International Rivers.

”The Mekong is becoming the testing grounds for new technologies, which may prove to have disastrous effects. The entire future of the river’s ecosystem is at stake. The Xayaburi Dam is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dave Tacon is an Australian journalist based in Shanghai.


Dams and Disease Triggers on the Lower Mekong River

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Most concern over controversial dam building on the Mekong River focuses on river ecology and food security, with limited attention given to the potential threat dams pose to public health via disease ecology and food safety. In this perspective Dr. Alan Ziegler and colleagues show how cascades of dams can trigger the incidence of some water-associated diseases, potentially leading to epidemics. Finally the authors propose alternative strategies for energy generation by working with the monsoon climate regime.

We recognize a number of uncertainties in our assessment of the linkages between dam building and disease triggers. For example, the risk of disease incidence will probably always vary greatly throughout the Mekong basin. In the case of O. viverrini, incidence is in part determined by food-related elements of the culture, namely the predilection of some groups of people to eat insufficiently cooked fish dishes [12]. In areas where infection from aquaculture fish are of concern, introducing exotic fish that are not known hosts of trematode parasites could reduce the risk of increased human infection, but such species might not be accepted in particular types of local dishes because of taste preferences [12], [14].
At a larger scale, the proposed cascade of dams may offset increases in the transition of several types of water-borne and vector-borne communicable diseases that often occurs following large, protracted floods. However, such a positive outcome is uncertain, as floods of this scale are related to unpredictable climatic events, as well as to reservoir storage and release management decisions. With the major focus of Mekong dams being power generation, high water levels are quite likely to be maintained throughout the late part of the monsoon season when tropical storms strike the Mekong basin [18]. Recent floods on the Chao Phraya River in Thailand and the Sesan River in Vietnam were arguably exacerbated by the difficulties of managing reservoirs when catchments were wet, reservoirs were full, and tropical storms struck [18], [19].

About the Authors

Alan D. Ziegler, Carl Grundy-Warr, Robert J. Wasson
Geography Department, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Trevor N. Petney
Department of Ecology and Parasitology, Zoology Institute, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Karlsruhe, Germany
Ross H. Andrews, Paiboon Sithithaworn
Department of Parasitology, Liver Fluke and Cholangiocarcinoma Research Center, Medical Faculty, Khon Kaen University, Khon Kaen, Thailand
Ross H. Andrews
Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, United Kingdom
Ian G. Baird
Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, United States of America

Corresponding Author


Competing Interests

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

April 3, 2013

Laos: Development wins – human rights, environment lose

Laos: Development wins – human rights, environment lose

           By Apr 03, 2013 7:15PM UTC

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Last November I posted about China’s controversial dam project on the Mekong River in Laos and how it could be catastrophic for the environment and the locals who depend on the river for their livelihoods.

Despite local concerns and international opposition from neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia (as well as the US) citing ecological repercussions and resulting humanitarian crises the hydropower project could usher in, construction of the Xayaburi dam has gone ahead.

From China’s Global Times:

Construction of the dam started late last year and is now 10 percent complete, but it has been the source of concern for various environmental groups, NGOs, and governments. These groups have argued against the construction of the dam because of a perceived potential for a negative impact on the migratory paths for the Mekong’s many fish species and the impacts on sediment flows down the river which provide fertile soil for agriculture along the river.

Xayaburi Dam construction, pic: International Rivers (Flickr CC)

The Lao government and the heads of the Xayaburi project argue in favor of the benefits the dam will bring. Laos, a poor country, sees hydropower as its cash cow. It will export electricity generated by the dam to neighboring Thailand. Project directors also claim that they have addressed many of the environmental and humanitarian concerns and that Vietnam and Cambodia no longer object to the dam’s construction.

However, a recent meeting of scientists in the Thai capital has affirmed that dams, including hydropower plants, are the largest threat to the fisheries of the Mekong, which support the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. Dams also intensify the negative effects of climate change on the Mekong. Read more on that from Voice of America.

Compared with most of its neighbors, Laos is poor and still undeveloped. This also means it has relatively large areas of unspoiled nature. As is the case in other countries (like Burma) largely Chinese investment into infrastructure and business projects is changing the landscape of Laos, literally and economically.

From China Dialogue (go to link for images):

In recent years, Chinese companies have poured billions of dollars into roads, dams and other infrastructure projects. The most notable is a US$7 billion, 400-kilometre high speed railway line, announced last year, that will run from the southern Chinese city of Kunming to the Laos capital of Vientiane and on to ports in Thailand. It is one of several projects aimed at improving access of Chinese goods to markets in Laos and beyond.

Speaking out against these projects can be dangerous, as environmental activists and NGO members have recently discovered.

Mekong River, Laos, pic: 松岡明芳 (Wikimedia Commons)

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July 12, 2012

Hillary Clinton makes historic Laos visit

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Decades after the US gave Laos a horrific distinction as the world’s most heavily bombed nation, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, has pledged to help get rid of millions of unexploded bombs that still pockmark the impoverished country.

US Secratry of State Hillary Cline greets Lao Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulit Photo: AFP/Getty Images

7:22AM BST 12 Jul 2012

The US dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese ally during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 – about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II.

Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate. More than 20,000 people have been killed in Laos since then by ordnance, according to Laos’ government, and agricultural development has been stymied.

Mrs Clinton, gauging whether the nation can evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia, met with the prime minister and foreign minister, part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of southeast Asia. The goal is to bolster America’s standing in some of the fastest growing markets of the world, and counter China’s expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.

Mrs Clinton said she and Laotian leaders “traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future.”

Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” US foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The efforts follow a long period of estrangement between Washington and a former Cold War-era foe, and come as US relations also warm with countries such as Burma and Vietnam.

In her meetings, Mrs Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River as well as investment opportunities and the joint efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs dropped across Laos over what was once called the Ho Chi Minh trail. Greater American support for programs in these fields will be included in a multimillion-dollar initiative for Southeast Asia to be announced later this week.

Mrs Clinton visited a Buddhist temple and a US-funded prosthetic centre for victims of American munitions. There, she met a man named Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight from a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday, four years ago.

“We have to do more,” Mrs Clinton told him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.” Although the US bombed Laos to loosen its alliance with the North Vietnamese, the current Vietnamese government focuses its efforts in Laos on recovering its own dead, more than cleaning up unexploded bombs.

Cleanup has been excruciatingly slow. The Washington-based Legacies of War says only 1 per cent of contaminated lands have been cleared and has called on Washington to provide far greater assistance. The State Department has provided $47 million since 1997, though a larger effort could make Laos “bomb-free in our lifetimes,” California Rep. Mike Honda argued Wednesday.

“Let us mend the wounds of the past together so that Laos can begin a new legacy of peace,” he said.

The US is spending $9 million this year on cleanup operations for unexploded ordnance in Laos and is likely to offer more in the coming days.

It is part of a larger Obama administration effort to reorient the direction of US diplomacy and commercial policy as the world’s most populous continent becomes the centre of the global economy over the next century. It is also a reaction to China’s expanding influence.

The last US secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955. His plane landed after a water buffalo was cleared from the tarmac.

At that time, the mountainous, sparsely populated nation was near the centre of US foreign policy. On leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that if Laos fell to the communists, all Southeast Asia could be lost as well.

While Vietnam ended up the focal point of America’s “domino theory” foreign policy, Laos was drawn deeply into the conflict as the U.S. helped support its anti-communist forces and bombed North Vietnamese supply lines and bases.

Landlocked and impoverished Laos offers fewer resources than its far larger neighbours and has lagged in Asia’s economic boom. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, even as it hopes to boost its development with accession soon to the World Trade Organisation.

In recent years, China has stepped up as Laos’ principal source of assistance, with loans and grants of up to $350 million over the past two decades. But like many others in its region, Laos’ government is wary of Beijing’s intentions. And it has kept an envious eye on neighbouring Vietnam’s 40 per cent surge in commercial trade with the United States over the past two years, as well as the sudden rapprochement between the U.S. and nearby Burma.

Persistent human rights issues stand in the way of closer relations with Washington. The US remains concerned about the plight of the ethnic Hmong minority, most of whom fled the country after fighting for a US-backed guerrilla army during the Vietnam War. Nearly 250,000 resettled in the United States. The US has pressed Laos to respect the rights of returnees from neighbouring countries.

Washington also has been seeking greater co-operation from Laos on the search for US soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War. More than 300 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos.

And the US is pressing the Laotian government to hold off on a proposed $3.5 billion dam project across the Mekong River. The dam would be the first across the river’s mainstream and has sparked a barrage of opposition from neighbouring countries and environmental groups, which warn that tens of millions of livelihoods could be at stake.

The project is currently on hold, and Washington hopes to stall it further with the promise of funds for new environmental studies.

Source: agencies

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