Think twice before doing damage that will be irreversible

The Nation 30 September 2010 

EDITORIAL

With wildlife habitat and cultural heritage at stake, dam projects on the lower Mekong River must be debated in public forums

The mighty mekong River, as the world knows it, may never be the same again if the Lao government has its way. There is a growing fear that up to 40 million people could be affected if the Xayaburi Dam and 12 other mainstream dams on the mekong are to go ahead as planned.

The Xayaburi Dam would be the first dam to be built on the lower mekong mainstream. It would displace thousands of people in Laos, disrupt an important fish migration route and cause the extinction of the critically endangered mekong giant catfish, by destroying one of its last natural spawning habitats. The dam is being proposed by Thai company Ch. Karnchang, and over 95 per cent of the power generated would be sold to Egat, the Thai electricity utility.

Environmental organisations around the world and donor countries such as the United States, a major contributor to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), have voiced their concern about the possible impact of the dam on the river's ecosystem and the livelihoods of the people who live on this great waterway that runs through the heart of Southeast Asia.

It has been suggested the dams should not proceed until there is an extensive debate on the MRC's strategic environmental assessment and the findings have been revealed.

The purpose of the strategic environmental assessment report is to evaluate the cumulative effects of the proposed mainstream dams. It is hoped that the Lao government will conduct the assessment properly, take its findings seriously and not treat the process as a formality. Its findings should be distributed publicly and be debated throughout the region by all governments and other stakeholders.

The powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing one day after the MRC announced that it had received official notification from Laos that the country wished to proceed with the first dam, the Xayaburi, on the lower Mekong. The timing of the hearing suggests that Washington is serious about how its aid money is used.

The import of the mekong River's fisheries as a source for food security in the region is well known throughout the world, and the thought of its ecosystem being irreparably disturbed is indeed troubling. Such action could have serious ramifications at all levels – political, social and economic. What is disturbing is the fact that the Lao government, the project developer Ch. Karnchang and the Mekong River Commission seem determined to push forward with the Xayaburi Dam despite the absence of a serious public debate on the important issues.

In her statement before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Aviva Imhof, campaigns director for International Rivers, said to allow the Xayaburi consultation process to go forward without considering the findings of the strategic environmental assessment would be like "getting a diagnosis of cancer and then ignoring it".

As a good neighbour, Thailand has a moral obligation to take into consideration the well-being of the people who stand to be affected by the dam's construction. The same concern should also be taken up by the donor countries.

Thai environmental and community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River have submitted a letter to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, asking him to cancel the plan to buy electricity from the Xayaburi Dam.

According to the World Wildlife Conservation Fund (WWF), the dam, if built, will block the sediment and nutrients that build the Mekong Delta and nourish its immense productivity, which provides more than 50 per cent of Vietnam's staple food crops. Moreover, the dam would alter wildlife habitats downstream in Laos and Cambodia, potentially having a devastating impact on wild fisheries and causing the likely extinction of critically endangered species.

"There must be a rigorous and transparent assessment of the impacts of this dam," said Marc Goichot, sustainable infrastructure senior advisor for WWF Greater Mekong. "It is already very clear that this dam would amplify and accelerate the negative affects of Chinese dams for the Mekong delta. What are the other impacts?" he said.

Echoing the concerns of International Rivers, the WWF supports a ten-year delay in the approval of lower Mekong dams to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all the effects of their construction and operation. In the meantime, immediate electricity demands can be met by fast-tracking the most sustainable hydropower sites on the lower Mekong's tributaries.