World must help protect vital Mekong river: activists

AFP 14 November 2007

BANGKOK — The construction of six dams along the Mekong River could displace tens of thousands of people and endanger over a thousand aquatic species, environmental groups warned Tuesday, calling for international intervention.

The planned hydropower dams on the Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia could displace tens of thousands of people and endanger up to 1,300 aquatic species including the rare Mekong giant catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin, activists said.

Environmental groups want international donors, who fund Southeast Asia's Mekong River Commission, to pressure the commission into investigating the social and ecological impact of each dam and to ensure people were compensated for any loss of livelihood.

Donors, among them the World Bank, the United States, Japan, Australia and many European governments, are due to meet in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap on Thursday.

"We urge all the donors of the Mekong River Commission to review immediately their support to the MRC," Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of Thailand-based ecological group TERRA, told reporters in Bangkok.

She said the MRC - which comprises Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - had failed since its creation in 1995 to carry out adequate environmental impact assessments or consult people affected by the dams.

"The existence of the MRC now, if they are not doing their job, they are blocking the way of other more transparent mechanisms" to do the job.

Laos, which has ambitions to become the region's key electricity supplier, has four Mekong dams under consideration, while Thailand and Cambodia each have one.

"The lower Mekong is the largest production fishery area, any change on the eco-system would create a vital impact," said Pianporn Deetes, a coordinator with Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN).

"The change in water levels would create inevitable impacts on fish migration," she added.

Activists said that because of the lack of transparent impact assessments for the dams, it was hard to say how many people would be forced from their homes, but estimates ranged between 17,300 and 75,000.

Surichai Wun'gaeo, head of Chulalongkorn University's social research institute, said a balance had to be reached between Asia's rocketing energy demands and the lives of rural people who still depend on the land.

"(The MRC) should prove its usefulness in the eyes of the public ... not only its usefulness in terms of certain businesses and interests," he said.

The 4,800-kilometre (2,980-mile) Mekong begins its life on the Tibetan plateau and flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before reaching the South China Sea via Vietnam's Mekong Delta.

The river, one of the most bio-diverse in the world, is the lifeblood for tens of millions of people living along its banks, providing fish, irrigation and a vital trading corridor.