Laos agrees to delay dam that neighbours say threatens Mekong

Vancouver Sun 25 April 2011

By Jonathan Manthorpe

Vietnam fears if it is built it will open the door for 10 others, leading to decreased water flow to the delta

Laos has agreed to delay construction of a $3.8-billion dam and hydroelectric scheme that opponents and neighbouring countries fear will lead to the destruction of the lower Mekong River, one of the world's most economically important waterways.

The Vientiane government reluctantly agreed to the postponement last week at a summit with officials from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, all of which are members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which advises on sustainable management of the waterway.

Laos said it will pause construction until perhaps October or November of the Xayaburi project, which would produce 1,260 megawatts of electricity that Thai utility companies have already contracted to buy.

But Thailand's government, together with that of Cambodia, think there should be further studies of the dam's environmental impact.

This follows release of a report done for the MRC by independent experts which said there are "fundamental gaps in knowledge" about the environmental and economic impact of the dam, and cast doubts on the optimistic predictions of the Thai company in charge of planning and construction.

The MRC report warned that from 23 to 100 fish species, including the endangered Mekong Giant Catfish - the world's largest freshwater fish - could face extinction if the dam is built.

Fish migration patterns would also be disrupted, the report said, and fishing yields seriously depleted. About 450,000 people from among the 65 million who live along the banks of the Mekong and its main tributaries depend on the river's fishery, which is worth about $3 billion a year.

Vietnam has a more fundamental problem with the Xayaburi dam and at last week's meeting called for a 10-year moratorium on all dam building on the main stream of the Mekong.

A major component of Vietnam's economy is agriculture and aquaculture in the Mekong Delta whose fertility depends on the regular flow of the river's waters and the nutrients in the sediment they carry.

Vietnam fears if the Xayaburi dam is built it will open the doors for 10 other dams already planned for the main stream of the Mekong.

This, Hanoi officials fear, will curtail the flow of water and nutrients to the delta and, perhaps, allow sea water to flow up the river, killing agriculture.

The MRC impact report is not only doubtful about the environmental consequences of the Xayaburi dam. It also questions the economic predictions.

The report says that the quantities of mud carried by the Mekong are so large that within 30 years the sedimentation of the reservoir will cut the hydro generation capacity by 60 per cent.

Agreeing to postpone the project for further consideration is a difficult concession for Laos to make. This is Southeast Asia's smallest economy and one of the world's poorest countries.

The Vientiane government wants Laos to use the Mekong and its other swift-running rivers to make the country a major power supplier for the region.

It has plans for 70 hydro power projects, five of which are under construction while 10 are already in operation.

The 1995 agreement setting up the MRC through which the four countries said they would share the Mekong River's resources and consult before taking any action that might affect its flow was a major diplomatic advance.

These are countries that had been at war among themselves during the turbulent 1960s, '70s and '80s and which still have some sharp political and territorial disputes.

But their largely positive cooperation in the MRC is stunted by one very large gap in their management of the 4,900 kilometre-long river over which they have no control.

Burma and more importantly China, through which the Mekong also runs from its source in Tibet, are not members of the MRC.

Indeed, China until recently has refused to even inform leave alone consult with the countries of the lower Mekong about its dam-building projects.

China has already built four hydro power dams on its stretch of the Mekong and has four more planned. It wants to double the electric power it gains from the river to 300 gigawatts by 2020.

And MRC officials believe China's dams have already had dire effects on the flow of the Mekong.

They point to dwindling water flows into the Tongle Sap, the huge lake attached to the Mekong in central Cambodia, which acts as a natural reservoir for the river, sustaining flows of water down stream in the dry season, and acting as a vast nursery for the river's fish stocks.

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