Mekong River dam at center of high-stakes conservation fight 19 April 2011

By Miranda Leitsinger 

Laos defers decision amid controversy that the plan would destroy a lifeline for millions in Southeast Asia


Millions of people living along the Mekong River face a crisis that could destroy their lifeline and kill off whole species of fish: construction of a dam — the first of 11 proposed in the waterway's lower basin — in Laos.

Conservationists warn that the dam could significantly reduce the critical fish stock in the Mekong, the world's most productive inland fishery.

Laos deferred a decision on the hydropower dam Tuesday in the face of strong opposition from neighboring countries, including one of its closest allies, Vietnam. But any decision could be a moot point, as a Thai newspaper reported Sunday that work on the project apparently began months ago despite questions and opposition from conservationists and Laos's downriver neighbors, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Under earlier agreements, Laos has the right to proceed on its own without approval of the other three nations. But Tuesday's move appears to indicate that the desperately poor country wants its neighbors' support, especially that of Vietnam, which is a major trading partner and political patron.

The Xayaburi dam would generate 1,260 megawatts of electricity, mostly for export to Thailand, according to the Mekong River Commission — created by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995 to oversee sustainable development along the waterway.

Laos proposed building the dam in September 2010, the main goal being to generate "foreign exchange earnings for financing socio-economic development in Lao PDR," according to the river commission.

The 3,000-mile river, which winds from China's Tibetan Plateau through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is home to nearly 1,000 freshwater fish species — including more species of giant fish, such as the Mekong giant catfish and the dog-eating catfish, than any other river. It provides a total harvest of about 2.5 million metric tons a year worth up to $6.5 billion, according to fish biologist Zeb Hogan, a research professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has studied the river for 15 years.

A critical resource
The Mekong is critical to the 60 million people who reside in the lower basin, with many of them living in poverty, according to the MRC's 2010 "State of the Basin" report.