Conservationists: Work underway on controversial Mekong River dam

msnbc.com 5 August 2011

By Miranda Leitsinger, Senior Writer and Editor

Johan Frijns / International Rivers

A July 23 visit to the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam has revealed that construction on the dam’s access road and work camp is forging ahead despite an agreement by the four lower Mekong countries to defer a decision on the project earlier this year.


Conservationists say work on a controversial hydropower dam on the Mekong River is underway in Laos even though that Southeast Asian nation had deferred a decision on whether the project should go ahead in face of strong opposition from neighboring countries earlier this year.
Construction on the Xayaburi Dam's access road and work camp is moving ahead, International Rivers, which campaigns to protect rivers, said in a statement about a visit to the site made on July 23 by a researcher unaffiliated with their group who wished to remain anonymous. Some land has been cleared, but the owners had not received compensation, International Rivers said.

The Bangkok Post on Sunday reported that their correspondents in early April had "found major road works under construction" in the area surrounding the proposed dam and "villagers preparing to be relocated" — with some told they would get about $15 in compensation. International Rivers believe the work in late July was a continuation of that process, said Aviva Imhof, the California-based group's campaigns director.

"By building this dam, Laos is disregarding its regional commitments and robbing the future of millions of people in the region who rely upon the river for their livelihood and food security," said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers.

The dam — the first of 11 proposed in the waterway's lower basin — would generate 1,260 megawatts of electricity, mostly for export to Thailand, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) — 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.

Under earlier agreements, Laos has the right to proceed on its own without approval of the other three nations. But Laos' choice in late April to defer a decision appeared to indicate that the desperately poor country wants its neighbors' support, especially that of Vietnam, which is a major trading partner and political patron.

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

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.

About two-thirds of the population of the lower Mekong Basin — or 40 million people — are involved in the Mekong's fishery at least part-time or seasonally, the MRC said.

At the MRC meeting in late April, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam raised concerns about "gaps in technical knowledge and studies about the project, predicted impact on the environment and livelihoods of people in the Mekong Basin and the need for more public consultations," the commission said in a statement.

Vietnam proposed that this project — and other hydropower projects planned for the Mekong mainstream — be delayed for at least 10 years.

“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,” Le Duc Trung, head of Vietnam's delegation, said in the MRC statement.

Laos disagreed, saying it was not practical to extend the process and argued that the dam would not have a negative environmental impact on its neighbors.

The four countries were to meet in Phnom Penh on Friday to discuss the next steps in the decision-making process for the dam, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely on Tuesday, International Rivers said.

The Laos-based MRC did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the ongoing construction and the postponed meeting was not immediately responded to. In late June, an MRC spokesman, Surasak Glahan, said that Laos had engaged consultants to conduct studies to address concerns raised by Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand about the dam.

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