The mighty Mekong with its famously fast currents, cherished by so many generations, could be on the brink of ecological disaster, if the controversial US$3.5 billion Xayaburi dam project in Laos goes ahead.
Mekong giant catfish 268kg 264cm Tonle Sap River in December, 2000
The all-important decision about the Xayaburi dam, that according to a diverse group of geographers, water resources and fisheries experts could lead to irreversible damage to the ecosystem, will be made on April 19th within the framework of the MRC Mekong River Commission.
Ame Trandem from the NGO International Rivers told Tuoi Tre: “The Mekong River is the lifeblood of SE Asia, feeding and employing millions of people. To move forward with the Xayaburi Dam would be reckless and irresponsible, as the dam would fatally impact the river's ecosystem and fisheries.”
The four Mekong countries - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - are the member states and meet to make a final decision on the project next week.
The $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam project is designed to produce 1,285 megawatts. Thailand has committed to buy 90% of the output.
"The Xayaburi Dam will trigger an ecological crisis of tremendous proportions. We urge the Prime Ministers of Laos and Thailand to show leadership by cancelling this project," said Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South, a member of the 263 coalition of NGOs from 51 nations against the dam.”
That opposition has been strengthened by the MRC’s technical review committee on the EIA on the dam submitted by the Thai dam-builder Ch Karnchang. The MRC expert committee slammed the EIA as “poorly researched”, misleading and inadequate.
Anti-dam protest outside Chinese embassy in Bangkok in 2010 led by villagers and communities living along the Mekong in northern Thailand
In the next few days a final decision will be made among the member states of the MRC.
The Lao government has argued that “Hydropower was a form of green energy which should be promoted as an answer to power supply shortages” and that it is determined to go ahead with the dam regardless of the mounting opposition.
Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee has adopted a firm policy of “No more dams on the Mekong for 10 years” and Cambodia is also deeply worried by the project.
If on April 19th Cambodia and Vietnam urge the Lao government to take a “time-out” to study the scientific data more carefully, there is no right of veto inside the MRC.
Dr Philip Hirsch director of the Mekong Research Centre in Australia argues that the Xayaburi Dam would be the first step in destroying the natural health and vigour of the Lower Mekong, reducing its strong currents rich in sediment and nutrients, “to a series of stagnant pools and reservoirs”.
He added that “If they get the Xayaburi dam “with another 11 dam projects waiting in the wings he predicted “they will get the lot.”
Many species will be doomed. Critically Endangered Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), a rare giant, specimens have been caught weighing up to 600 pounds has “absolutely no hope” for its survival says Dr Eric Baran fisheries expert at the WorldFish Centre in Phnom Penh if dam construction proceeds. 41 species of migratory fish are also at risk of being exterminated by the Xayaburi dam.
Up to 70 percent of fish species in the Mekong migrate long distances to feed and spawn, and dams would both physically block their upstream journey as well as change the environmental signals that trigger migration
A deeply-flawed EIA [environmental impact assessment]
One of Thailand’s leading construction companies, CH Karnchang, the Xayaburi dam-builder arranged for a Bangkok firm Team Consultants, to furnish the EIA. For many months this EIA was deliberately kept secret from the public consultations conducted by the MRC during the last 6 months. This critical document on the impacts of this has only now belatedly been disclosed. In late March, the MRC released its expert review.
The MRC review highlights considerable uncertainties and knowledge gaps in the proposal. It says that the scale of the government's EIA, which covered a radius of 10 kilometres seriously, underestimates the ecological and social impact of the dam, while over-estimating the effectiveness of mitigation measures such as fish-pass facilities.
The MRC Review concluded as ‘there is no definitive solution to mitigate the lost fish production in the Xayaburi Dam area’.
Ms Ame Tandem from International Rivers points out that any attempts by the Thai dam-builder and the Lao government to press ahead are based on “a deeply-flawed EIA that has made false claims that fishery losses could be mitigated.”
A series of earthquakes in the region of Burma and northern Laos last month [very close to the dam-site], has also spurred fears that a dam poses a massive safety issue, one more issue that has not been seriously addressed by the EIA.
The Thailand factor
Last week there were more Thai NGO protests along the Mekong River with rallies taking place in three provinces, Loei, Nong Khai, and Ubon.
Several Thai parliamentarians have backed the campaign to stop the dam.
While this dam is being built inside Laos, with all the engineering expertise, finance, and design coming from the other side of the Mekong- the Thai side, many observers view Xayaburi primarily a deeply –flawed Thai project. Suspicion is increasing that the Thai government is more in tune with private business interests than Mekong river experts and their own anti-dam movement.
The four biggest major Thai banks including the Bangkok Bank and Siam Commercial bank have underwritten the Xayaburi Dam with loans to the developer Ch Karnchang.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of Democrat Party, enjoys good connections with Bangkok’s business and banking elite. With a general election expected next month, and the Democrat relying on the business sector for campaign funds, it is expected that inside the MRC, Thailand will quietly support the Lao government.
The battle over the future of the Mekong now appears to be shaping up for a showdown between Laos and Thailand on one side versus Cambodia and Vietnam against.
This is a crucial test-case for the Mekong River Commission given that this is the first dam on the Mekong in the Lower Mekong beyond Chinese waters.
The MRC’s main purpose is to forge a consensus between the four member states based on respect for the communality of interests between the riparian countries, and also the recognition that the Mekong as an international river transcends the national interest of any one member state.
"Individual countries have the responsibility to give up some of their decision making and learn how to share the resources in a cooperative and trans- boundary way and do the best thing for every country and for the river," Edward Grumbine an environmental policy expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Nature journal.
But it is not simply two nation in favour of the dam and two nations against. The MRC consultation process led to public participation in seven forums held in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam during the last six months.
Another MRC document on the consultation process showed nobody spoke in favour of the dam during public consultations, while many officials, academics and residents cited problems or lack of information about the project. No consultation was held in Laos.
The public is clearly stacked against the dam, and so is the science. The MRC commissioned a comprehensive The Strategic Environmental Assessment to deal with the impacts of all 12 dams.
In October 2010 it concluded that "decisions on mainstream dams should be deferred for a period of ten years" because the risks of potential environmental and economic impact are beyond the capacity of the governments to address.”
Some fear that Laos is so determined to build the dam that it will press ahead against all the advice and recommendations of the MRC commission.
A spokesman of the international coalition against the dams Pieter Jansen of ‘Both Ends’ngo declared: “If the project proceeds, the Mekong River Commission's (MRC) regional decision-making process will lose all public credibility through its complete disregard to the dam's massive public opposition.”
For the estimated 65 millions people who depend on a healthy Mekong for their livelihood, food security and transportation, the further damming of this river could result in a terrible tragedy.
The tragedy would be the metamorphosis of the Mekong into a strange and totally different river. A river with no strong currents, no more Irrawaddy dolphins, the giant catfish is nothing more than the memory of a bygone era.
Mekong Khone Falls - Here the Mekong area is known as FOUR THOUSAND ISLANDS and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins can be found nearby
The food security that since time immemorial was taken for granted, snatched away by dwindling catches.
If this dam is ever built, fishermen and villagers predict that all along the river from Chiang Saen in northern Thailand Xayaburi in Laos, down through Cambodia to the Vietnam delta, people will end up in a collective state of mourning for death of the Mekong.