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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Inevitable, or in Limbo? A Dam for the Mekong

“Many villages don’t even know they need to be resettled, and people living downstream don’t know what’s happening.”

By Rachel Nuwer


As The Times reported last week, environment ministers from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos have decided to await the results of further studies before making a decision on whether to proceed with construction of a dam in the Mekong River. Conservationists argue that damming the river, a vital and biologically diverse lifeline for people in all four countries, would be irresponsible. (Check out our slide show to get a sense of the river’s centrality to people in the basin.)

Zeb Hogan, University of Nevada, RenoA floating village in the Tonle Sap River, which drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. The arrow trap, one of many indigenous fishing methods that developed over the centuries, shifts seasonally depending on water levels and the related behavior of fish.


What comes next, however, is unclear. The government of Laos, where the dam would be built, is not satisfied with the decision, according to Viraphonh Viravong, the deputy minister of the Laotian Ministry of Energy and Mines. “It would be very sad and not very fair to Laos not to develop the Xayaburi project since this is a very rare opportunity for Laos to attract foreign investment,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Times. “We would not be very proud of ourselves to continue begging for development assistance.”

What is more, Laos began preliminary construction at the dam site before last week’s meeting and has yet to make a clear commitment to stop construction at Xayaburi.

“The government of Laos didn’t mention the topic at the meeting,” said Surasak Glahan, a spokesman for the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that is responsible for promoting cooperation in the basin and organized the meeting. He said the commission and the other member governments had sent official letters to the Laotian government inquiring about construction activity but had yet to receive a reply.
After the meeting, the Laotian authorities told some members of the local media that the construction activity had nothing to do with the dam and was part of “normal” projects like bringing roads to local communities.
As we noted here last week, the Xayaburi dam, a 1260-megawatt hydropower project, is the first of 11 proposed mainstream dams on the Mekong River. Although it is aimed at generating much-needed foreign exchange earnings for Laos, scientists and neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia have expressed concern over the project’s potential social and environmental impacts since it was first proposed in September 2010.

Some scientists and conservationists still hope that the project can be shelved altogether. “We will continue to advocate for no dams on the Mekong,” said Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia program director for the nonprofit group International Rivers. She said that damming the river would be “reckless and irresponsible” given the many uncertainties about the project’s effects on the ecosystem and local people.

Zeb Hogan, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno who has studied the river’s ecosystem, said that the Mekong countries had made “a prudent decision” for now that represented “a rare win” for fish and for the millions of people who depend upon fish and the health of the Mekong for their livelihoods.

For critically endangered species like the Mekong giant catfish, the delay preserves the possibility of saving the species from extinction, he said in an e-mail.

Mr. Viravong counters that the dam’s impacts would be “insignificant” and that the project will not cause significant trans-boundary problems downstream.

Mr. Glahan of the Mekong River Commission said that it was awaiting directions from the four member countries. The nations may request further studies and the drafting of details on what approach the countries would prefer to take in addressing the dam’s potential impacts, he said.

The four countries have already asked Japan to assist in further studies.

Thirteen other nations, including the United States, and donor agencies like the World Bank attended last week’s meeting. In a statement, those countries and organizations said they hoped that further studies would address knowledge gaps and “account for the full value of environmental, economic and social services currently provided by the basin.” A spokesman for Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, called the delay “a positive sign,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Mr. Viravong said that Laos was recruiting experts on fisheries and sediment to review previous reports evaluating the dam’s potential impacts, including a strategic environmental assessment and a controversial report commissioned by Laos that said dam construction would pose no serious risks yet incorporated no new scientific research. He said that such reviews should take two to three months.

A comprehensive environmental study involving Japan and the other donor countries would probably take 10 years, Mr. Viravong warned.

The international partners have also recommended deeper engagement with local communities in the decision-making process, especially people who could be most affected by the dam. That would require providing the communities with detailed environmental impact assessments written in their own language at least 30 days before a public consultation, Ms. Trandem said, which has not happened so far in any of the four countries.

This is especially pressing for Lao communities, who have not been consulted. “They’ve really heard mixed information,” Ms. Trandem said, “Many villages don’t even know they need to be resettled, and people living downstream don’t know what’s happening.”

Mr. Viravong, the Laotian government minister, emphasized that the Xayaburi project would provide clean, renewable and sustainable energy. “This is not for Lao people only, but for the benefit of the region and the whole world,” he said. “Please help Laos develop sustainable hydropower projects and don’t make this more difficult for the poor people of Laos.”

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