Bangkok Post 28 June 2010
By Apinya Wipatayotin
LUANG PRABANG : When entrepreneur Uncle Mee introduced an overnight boat service on the Mekong River from Luang Prabang in Laos to Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai and the neighbouring Lao province of Sayabouri, he thought he was on to a winner.
The business proved popular with tourists who wanted to enjoy the natural beauty of the mighty Mekong which provides food for more than 60 million people in countries shared by the river.
But Uncle Mee's smiling face turned to a grimace when he was asked what his business would be like after the Sayabouri dam is built.
"I don't know whether I can continue my business as usual," said the Lao man, who is one of 300 boat trip operators in the former Lao capital.
"As far as I know, the dam's sluice gates will open sometimes for boats to pass through. Besides that, I know nothing about it.
"But one thing I am sure of is that the beautiful scenery will completely change."
Hydro-electric power generation is one of Laos's main industries. Hydropower and the mining industry account for half of the gross domestic product. All hydropower plants are based on dams constructed on the Mekong's tributaries.
The Sayabouri dam could be the first hydropower plant in Laos built on the Mekong if the project passes the Lao government's environmental impact assessment study.
The run-of-river dam is being financed by Ch Karnchang at a cost of about 90 billion baht. It is expected to generate 1,260 megawatts of power.
The project is likely to start this year with construction taking eight years. Once it is operational, 90% of the power generated will be sold to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
The Lao government has agreed to grant a 27-year concession to Ch Karnchang, extendable twice for five years each.
The latest study by a consultancy found that at least 2,130 people from 10 villages must be evacuated to make way for the project.
"We expect more to be evacuated," said Pianporn Deetes, a coordinator with International Rivers Network.
"But the most challenging problem is their life will never be the same when the dam exists. Their traditional fishing will also change as the dam does not go with traditional fishing. It will destroy deep pools which provide a home for fish."
Over the 400 kilometres from Luang Prabang to Sayabouri, the river scenery is revered and features many islets.
It is a paradise for local fishermen who feed their families with freshwater fish. Some villagers hope for even more luck by searching for gold along the banks.
A senior villager at Ban Huay Sui, which is one of 10 villages to be evacuated, said his fellow villagers did not oppose the project if they receive compensation and new houses built by Ch Karnchang.
"Representatives from the Thai company have spoken with us," said the villager. "The new [village] site will be about three kilometres from here. The company has agreed to give us electricity, new houses and compensation.
"We don't want to be an obstacle to the country's development. We also aren't worried much about fishing.
"We believe that fish will be around."
However, a young boy at Ban Kai, which also will be affected directly by the Sayabouri dam, did not share such optimism.
He thought the dam could lead to a sharp decline in the fish population.
He said the fishing will not be the same as the sluice gates will only be open for certain times. His life and income from fishing will depend on the sluice gates, he said.
A report from the World Fish Centre released in 2007 says only nine of a hundred types of fish in the Mekong River will survive at the dam site. It also reveals that the dam is a critical obstacle to a growing fish population. And there are no plans to investigate technology to create "effective fish ladders" to help fishes' natural migration.
Thai-Water Partnership chairman Hanarong Yaowaloes urged Ch Karnchang to take more responsibility for the lives of those affected as the project will not only harm Lao people but other people living downstream, including Thais, Cambodians and Vietnamese, although the Lao people will feel the biggest impact of ecological loss.
"The issue of the dam is an issue of human rights violations, the right to live in a healthy ecological system, the right to live in the place where they were born," Mr Hanarong said.
"The Thai government should review the project as it destroys the fertility of the river which is a shared asset in the Lower Mekong Region."
The government should learn from the failure of the Pak Moon Dam in Ubon Ratchathani, where the traditional way of life of Thai fishermen has collapsed, he said. "The Sayabouri dam is twice the size of the Pak Moon Dam. Can you imagine how badly it will destroy the fish and people's lives?" he asked.
Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group chairman Niwat Roikaew said his group will submit a petition to Ch Karnchang and demand it clarify the issue. "The best way to deal with the problem is to stop the dam," he said.
"Thais who will benefit from the dam project should understand our neighbours' pain as we share the same river."
The Mekong River Commission will meet next week in Vietnam. Environmentalists are expected to press the committee to review all dam construction along the Mekong, including the Sayabouri dam.