Laos faces pressure to alter hydropower ambitions

VOA 21 April 2011

A controversial proposal by Laos to build the first of 11 hydropower dams planned for the lower Mekong River has angered people who live near the river's banks.

Perceived threat

Prailor Manmoon is an ethnic Lao woman living in Kong Nang, a Thai village on the Mekong River located downstream of the proposed Xayaburi hydropower dam.

On Sunday, as children played in the nearby Mekong River, Manmoon and her neighbors gathered to eat sticky rice and discuss the proposed Xayaburi dam.

Officials in neighboring Laos, an impoverished and land-locked communist state, say the dam would cut poverty and generate revenue.

But Manmoon and her neighbors say Xayaburi and other proposed hydropower dams threaten their village, where fishing is a main source of income.

"If a dam is built, maybe there will be a flood and it could kill us, or maybe the river levels will be really low, and we won't have enough water to use or drink," Manmoon said.

Pushing forward

Across the river in Vientiane, the Lao capital, the Mekong River Commission's Joint Committee was preparing for a highly anticipated meeting on the Lao dam proposal.

At the meeting Tuesday, Laos said the project should move forward, claiming the dam will comply with international standards.

But Laos' lower Mekong neighbors - Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam - issued statements saying more information is needed about the dam's potential trans-boundary environmental impacts.

Vietnam issued the strongest statement, calling for a 10-year moratorium on new Mekong dams.

No agreement

The four lower Mekong countries failed to make a joint decision on the dam, but agreed to hold ministerial-level talks later this year.

Analysts say government statements and the decision to elevate MRC talks to the ministerial level raises the political stakes of the Xayaburi controversy.

Philip Hirsch is a professor of human ecology at the University of Sydney. He says that while the Mekong River Commission cannot stop Laos from building dams on the Mekong's main stream, the Mekong River Commission's protocols have allowed neighboring countries to put diplomatic pressure on Laos.

"If Laos was to go it alone [by building the Xayaburi dam] and not listen to the other countries, it would be doing so now against the express wishes of the other countries, and particularly against the express wishes of Vietnam, with which Laos has a very close relationship," noted Hirsch.

Face-off expected

Hirsch predicts there will be a face-off between ministers from Laos and neighboring Vietnam, which are both one-party communist states.

If the Xayaburi is built, Hirsch adds, it will be easier for other lower Mekong countries, particularly Cambodia, to build dams on the Mekong's main stream.

Laos "cannot ignore" critical statements from its lower Mekong neighbors, according to a Vietnamese environmentalist who requested anonymity.

If Laos builds the dam over high-level opposition, the country may jeopardize its reputation in the international community, the environmentalist said.

Under MRC protocol, the four lower Mekong countries are required to notify their neighbors if they plan to build dams on the river's main stream, but they do not need each other's permission to proceed with dam projects.

China, which borders Laos, already operates four dams on the Mekong's upstream reaches.

Environmental impact

Civil society groups and non-governmental organizations across the region have warned that building dams on the lower Mekong will hurt the environment and threaten food security and rural livelihoods.

Stuart Chapman is conservation director for the World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong Program.  He says the Xayaburi dam would have adverse effects on sediment flows and fish migration.

"The Mekong River is unique, both in terms of diversity of the fish and the volume of fish that travel up and down it," Chapman explained.  "So essentially any dam that is built across the Mekong is going to be a blockage to many fish species as they try and migrate. If they can't migrate, they don't breed, and this will lead to a collapse of the fishery."

Chapman says some North American dams have installed "fish ladders" and other devices that help fish pass through dams. But the technologies would not help many species of Mekong fish survive, he says.

A recent World Wildflie Fund (WWF) study claimed the environmental impact assessment conducted for the proposed Xayaburi dam does not meet international standards.

95 percent of the dam's 1,260 megawatts of electricity would be sold to Thailand, and a Thai company would operate the $3.5 billion dollar project.

Preliminary work on the dam has already begun, according to Thai media reports.

Renewable energy

Carl Middleton, Southeast Asia program director for the environmental group International Rivers, said that instead of sourcing power from Mekong dams, Thailand should focus on improving energy efficiency and developing sources of renewable energy.

"I think what needs to be taken into account is a more holistic decision-making process that actually recognizes the implications for livelihoods and food security if mainstream dams are built [on the Mekong River]," Middleton said.

An independent study commissioned by the MRC warned in October that Mekong hydropower dams would exacerbate food insecurity and cause "serious and irreversible" environmental effects.

Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Jim Webb warned in a statement that building dams on the Mekong's mainstream would jeopardize fishing and rice farming in the Mekong River Delta.

Approximately 60 million people depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods.