Activists vow to take on first dam on lower Mekong

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 14, 2010 (IPS) - A hydropower dam project in Laos that could permanently scar South-east Asia’s largest river, the Mekong, faces a strong wall of opposition from local and regional green groups determined to protect its pristine environment.

This defiance comes in the wake of the Lao government’s submission in late September of plans for the 1,260-megawatt Sayaboury dam project, confirming its intention to proceed with it and win approval for the first megadam on the mainstream of the lower Mekong, which is also shared by Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

"It is very dangerous and damaging to the environment and the people to have dams on the Mekong," Premrudee Daoroung of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), a Bangkok-based green lobby, said in an interview. "We are suspicious that this is an effort to move this problematic dam-building process forward."

Environmentalists’ opposition to the dam, which is to be built in the north-west Lao province of Sayaboury, sets the stage for a three-cornered battle that will test the limits of environmental diplomacy in this region. Drawn into this tussle, besides the green groups and the governments, is the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental organisation based in the Lao capital, Vientiane.

The Lao government’s submission triggers the MRC’s mechanism for assessing dam proposals like the Sayaboury one and its cross-border impacts. But while officials say this allows discussion of dam projects that have caused tensions in the past, Save the Mekong, a coalition of local and regional green groups, finds it deeply flawed.

This mechanism, which has existed for the past 15 years, is now being dusted off and tested for the first time: the prior consultation process for dam building, formally known as the Procedure for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA).

"The Sayaboury dam’s project documents, submitted to the MRC Secretariat by the Lao government thus initiating the PNPCA, have not been released to the public and represent a complete failure of transparency; this despite the fact that a stated principle of the PNPCA is transparency," Save the Mekong said in an Oct. 13 letter to MRC Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Bird.

"Official documents on the MRC’s website about the PNPCA process lack a clear explanation of the actual procedure to be followed, contain wording that is deliberately ambiguous, and have no commitment to consultation with the public," it added.

But Bird sees the PNPCA, which was written into the agreement that helped create the MRC in 1995, in a different light. "The process will be a test for (MRC) member countries’ commitment to sustainable development of water and related resources of the Mekong," he explained in an e- mail interview.

"The fact that a forum exists among the four Mekong countries to discuss the transboundary impacts of mainstream development demonstrates the willingness to engage in environmental diplomacy," he added. "It can be viewed as an opportunity for member countries, for the first time, to come to a consensus on how to proceed with development that could impact on the region."

It is uncertain if this process will be confined to official discussions, shutting out NGOs that say they speak on behalf of the riverbank communities expected to bear the brunt of the Sayaboury dam project.

"Although the prior consultation on specific projects does not formally require additional public participation, it does not exclude it either," Bird revealed. "In the near future, Lower Mekong Basin countries will discuss how to involve relevant stakeholders through public participation and consultation relating to the prior consultation process."

Under the PNPCA, consultations among the four countries on a dam project on the Mekong’s mainstream should be completed within six months. They need to reach a consensus before a hydropower project can get underway.

Activists add that the democracy deficit in the region cannot be sidestepped in discussions about dam projects. Laos and Vietnam are ruled by communist parties that brook no criticism and provide little space for independent NGOs. Cambodia, although more open to opposition and civil society’s voices, has a mixed record.

This is why Thailand, which has the most democratic space of all four, is a key battleground in public debates about dams on the Mekong mainstream. In early September, Thai villagers living along the Mekong wrote to the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to withdraw support for the Sayaboury dam.

Although it is not the first of dams on the Mekong, the Sayaboury project is significant because it will be the first of 11 planned dams on the river’s mainstream, nine of which will be in Laos. Vientiane’s march to become the battery of the region is being driven by what its officials expect will be a foreign exchange windfall from exporting the electricity generated by its hydropower potential.

The Sayaboury dam, to be built by a Thai company close to the Thai-Laos border, will submerge 2,130 homes and some 200,000 residents will "suffer impacts to their livelihoods, income and food security," states Save the Mekong. "Up to 41 fish species would be at risk of extinction, including the critically endangered and iconic Mekong Giant Catfish."

The 4,880-km Mekong River flows from Tibetan plateau, through southern China, winds its way by Burma and through the Mekong basin, before finally emptying out in the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.

China has built four of a cascade of eight dams in the upper stretches of the Mekong, all of which activists have criticised for damaging a rich ecosystem that 60 million people living in the Mekong Basin depend on. Annual income from fisheries there is estimated at two to three billion U.S. dollars. (END)