Shame on the dam builders

Bangkok Post 18 April 2011


The dispute over whether to build the first hydro-electric dam on our region's share of the Mekong River has reached an abysmal low point.

Governments, businesses and bankers have broken their understanding with Lao residents and civil society. Backers of the Xayaburi dam in northern Laos were to submit plans to this week's meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Vientiane.

Instead, as eyewitnesses reported in this newspaper yesterday, preparatory work on the dam is well under way, and residents are already being moved out.

Presumably, officials will now weasel and warp the intent of the process. We can expect something along the line of, well, workmen are not working on the actual dam, just preparing the way.

And, well, local residents are resigned to moving and so approached authorities to offer to leave the area. No one will believe such statements, but there is no chance that anyone connected with this sneaky endeavour will actually play straight with the public.

Laos, of course, has the right to build what it wants, when it wants, on its territory. But the international community has a huge stake in this Mekong River project, especially the countries downstream.

Thailand has given effective political backing to the decision of the Lao government.

That is because Thailand stands to be the major beneficiary of the Xayaburi dam, from start to finish. Thai firms are already at work on the project, and Thailand will receive all or most of the electricity produced by the finished dam.

The next two countries along the river are strongly and publicly opposed to construction of the dam. Cambodia and Vietnam fear the project will block, slow or alter the flow of the mighty Mekong.

Scientists and government authorities in both countries have protested the plans by Laos to build Xayaburi, and by inference have also blamed Thailand for backing it. Both countries need the Mekong to flood their bountiful rice fields in Cambodia's northwest, and in Vietnam's south, where the river finally flows into the South China Sea.

They are not alone. Many local governments along the river are as vehemently opposed. In Chiang Khan district of Chiang Rai, the local government headed by Kamol Konpin already blames China for shifting and altering the river's flow. He fears ''more suffering'' because of Xayaburi. And the effect on one of nature's marvels, the giant catfish, has not been studied.

Last month, activists and opponents tried to demonstrate there is strength in numbers. These dam sceptics mustered 263 non-government groups from 51 countries in a single, impressive effort. Their letter to Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong of Laos, however, went unacknowledged. Likewise, there is no sign of any change of heart because of the sudden high-profile opposition to the dam last week by US Senator Jim Webb, who was last seen in the region talking to the Burmese regime about human rights.

The MRC is to hold a four-day meeting in Vientiane beginning tomorrow. By Friday, the group is supposed to be able to announce its final recommendation to the members on whether to build the Xayaburi dam.

That announcement is clearly going to be an anti-climax. The sham promise to consult and then to decide whether to build Xayaburi should stand as an example of how not to proceed with huge public projects.

Authorities involved should be ashamed of misleading their people and civil society.