The dam disunited

Bangkok Post 24 April 2011

Newspaper section: Spectrum

By Luke Hunt

Bickering among members of the Mekong River Commission has done nothing to stop the construction of the Xayaburi dam, with the fates of those affected hanging in the balance

The peace dividend that came with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s spawned alliances in unlikely places amid a seismic realignment of international politics. Regional deals were done among countries that politicians had previously only dreamed about; among them was the formation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

For the last 16 years, the MRC has weighed exploitation of the Mekong's resources against the health of the river, attempting to ensure sustainable development aimed at alleviating poverty for the 60 million people who rely on its mainstream and vast tributaries for their livelihoods.

Now a split is emerging within the ranks of MRC's member states - Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - and it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the unveiling of plans to dam the world's 10th longest river, which also traverses China and Burma. Meeting in Vientiane early last week, a joint committee special session of the MRC was expected to finalise its position and proceed with a massive dam in northwest Laos, near the Thai border.

That meeting, however, ended abruptly. No agreement was reached, instead the decision was bumped up to ministerial level with the Vietnamese calling for a 10-year moratorium of all dam construction along the Mekong's mainstream.

"The deferment should be positively seen as a way to provide much-needed time for riparian governments to carry out comprehensive and more specific quantitative studies on all possible cumulative impacts," said Le Duc Trung, head of the Vietnamese delegation.

He said current timeframes were inadequate, adding: "The deferment would enable the country to secure better understanding and the confidence of the public and local communities."

Thailand suitably played the role of a concerned regional citizen and - aware of growing opposition within the MRC - agreed that the stipulated timeframe for the prior consultation process is insufficient and should be extended.

"Therefore, we would like to see that public views and concerns are well taken into consideration," said Jatuporn Buruspat, director-general of the Thai Water Resources Department in his official response.

Cash-strapped and isolated, Laos has been dubbed the "Battery of Southeast Asia" because of its ambitions which now appear to undermine the spirit of the MRC.

Vientiane has already issued the order for work to begin around the site. The country's steep mountains, valleys and caverns, which the Mekong carves through on its southward journey, are ideal for hydro-electric power generation. Of the 12 dams planned for the lower Mekong Basin, Laos wants to build 10.

With that in mind, and with the support of Bangkok, Laos announced it would construct a US$3.5 billion (105 billion baht) dam at Xayaburi. In all, a 1,260MW hydropower project to be built by Thai construction company Ch Karnchang. Thailand will buy 95% of the power produced by the project.

Laos has argued all the correct boxes regarding legal and environmental issues have been ticked and under the initial MRC agreement signed in 1995, all four countries retained the right to build dams with or without agreement from neighbouring countries.

At the end of the day, it's simply none of their business, the Laotians might say. Hanoi, however, sees its farmers and fishermen in the Mekong Delta as being hurt directly by the dam. As one seasoned observer put it: "Why should the Vietnamese government be forced to compensate its people for a dam being constructed in Laos by a Thai company for Thai electricity consumption?"

As a result, tensions between Laos and Vietnam - normally the closest of neighbours - are being sorely tested. The Xayaburi dam now has the attention of the politburo in Hanoi and the Thais could be out of pocket despite a deal that was signed off on in 2007.

Vietnam's next move, with Cambodian assistance if required, will be an attempt to cajole and persuade Laos into at least accepting the decade-long deferral.

According to an independent report prepared for the MRC by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) planned dam construction along the Mekong would be devastating, and it highlighted what many see as the single most important issue for the region - food security.

It said if 11 mainstream dams were built, the total loss in fish resources would be 550,000-880,000 tonnes or 26-42% compared to the 2000 baseline - 340,000 tonnes of that estimate directly due to mainstream dams.

The amount of protein at risk of being lost annually if 11 mainstream dams were built by 2030 represents 110% of the current total annual livestock production of Cambodia and Laos.

"The mainstream projects would fundamentally undermine the abundance, productivity and diversity of the Mekong fish resources, affecting the millions of rural people who rely on it for nutrition and livelihoods," it warned. Governments in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are acutely aware of events in the Middle East where peaceful protests have toppled totalitarian governments or turned violent against the likes of Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

Those events can be traced to the rising costs of food, particularly flour, and serve as a potent reminder to governments here that a contented population depends very much on access to food.

Chinese dams in the upper Mekong reaches have already been blamed for droughts in recent years, with water shortages causing conflict within farming communities.

Australia - a chief financial supporter of the MRC - has backed previously voiced concerns by Vietnam and Cambodia over the project.

Environmental groups are pressing Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to pressure the MRC into declaring a suspension on hydropower along the river. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and International Rivers want the Xayaburi dam scrapped, calling it an environmental disaster.

"Any decision made will have implications for generations to come," said Jian-hua Meng, a WWF international sustainable hydropower specialist after the meeting.

"It is clear that the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are acknowledging the gaps in knowledge of the expected impacts from the dam."

He said a WWF-commissioned review of the Xayaburi project found that the environmental impact assessment and feasibility study for the proposed dam were woefully inadequate and fell well below international standards for such studies.

Changes in flows, sediment and nutrients need to be further studied, it says.

The US has also entered the fray, initially calling for the 10-year deferral on any developments to allow for environmental impact studies to be undertaken. Yet despite political pressure from its neighbours, Washington and Canberra, Laos is likely to hold out.

The response from Laos so far has been curt, if glib: "We appreciate all comments, but we will consider to accommodate all concerns," said Viraphonh Viravong, head of their delegation, after the meeting. The Laos delegation, however, failed to mention that work around the Xayaburi site has been under way since November, one month after the ICEM report was sent to the MRC.

An investigation published last weekend by the Bangkok Post Sunday which visited the area surrounding the Xayaburi dam found major road works under construction and villagers preparing to be relocated. Several said they were to receive as little as $15 in compensation for moving. Trucks and backhoes bearing the name of Ch Karnchang were seen clearing and grading roads.

The investigation also revealed road work being undertaken over more than 30km from Ban Nara village to Ban Talan and Ban Houay Souy, which is near the proposed site for the dam.

According to villagers living near the dam site, the road work started about five months ago.

Given the mounting political pressure Laos is facing over the dam and its promises to at least listen to the international community, it's a construction strategy the government might want to rethink.