Doomed to be dammed

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Laos plans to build the first dam on the lower Mekong River despite a call for a decade-long hiatus

Farmers prepare to plant coconut palm trees in a salt-water soaked field in Ben Tre Province. Experts warn that damming the Mekong's lower mainstream could impede freshwater flow causing further ruin to the Mekong Delta rice crop.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) announced last week that the Laotian government has proposed construction of the first hydroelectric dam to be built directly on the river.

The announcement has drawn the ire of critics who have long decried the dire impact such a dam could have on the river's dependents, regional tensions and the world's largest rice granary.

Others argue that the MRC has failed to follow proper procedure and is entertaining dam construction proposals before releasing the findings of its own Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).

Khy Lim, an MRC spokesman called those accusations "incorrect."

"The SEA report will be available in time for the PNPCA process and will offer the necessary regional perspectives needed for Member Countries' decision making," Lim wrote, via e-mail.

Last month, the organization told Thanh Nien Weekly that the findings would be released at the end of September.

When asked why the release of the complete environmental assessment has taken so long, Lim explained that the committee is preparing "one of the most extensive studies done of its type"  and has required a "complex interaction" of various interdisciplinary scientists as well as a review by member states.

"A short delay is not a major problem as the report will still be available well in time to inform the discussions among the member countries on the first of the proposed dams which will take place over the next six months," Lim wrote.  

Since mid-2006, numerous developers have been preparing detailed studies for a cascade of twelve large hydropower dams on the Mekong River.

Critics have said that even a single dam would cause irreparable damage to the river's aquatic biodiversity which is second only to the Amazon in South America.

The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia. More than 60 million people rely on it for their livelihoods. The 4,000-km river begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea.

In 1995, the MRC was established under the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin between the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The agreement required the member countries to jointly review any dam proposal for the lower Mekong mainstream and reach a consensus before a dam construction project can proceed.

Last week, the intergovernmental body announced it had received the official notification for a dam project in Laos' Xayaboury Province.

"This notification will, for the first time, trigger the MRC's Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement  (PNPCA) process," the commission said in a statement issued on September 22.

"We expect it to take about six months to undertake the detailed analysis of all the related issues and for the countries to come to a conclusion," said Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat.

Last year, the MRC commissioned a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of all the proposed mainstream projects, including the Xayaboury dam.

The complete results have not been released to the public.

CEO Bird said the assessment was part of MRC's preparation for the procedures process and its final report will be available in early October.

"The SEA is one of the most extensive studies of its type and will be available in time to inform the discussions of the four countries under the PNPCA process for Xayaboury," he said.

A preliminary summary of the findings indicates that the scientists have urged the four countries to wait another decade before proceeding with any projects.

US pipes up

On September 23, one day after the release of the MRC's statement, the US Senate Committee on

Foreign Relations, chaired by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, held a hearing on the plans to build the Mekong mainstream's 12 dams.

In his opening comments, Sen. Webb called the dam plans "profoundly disturbing" on a political, economic and social level.

In her testimony before the Senate, Aviva Imhof, Campaign Director for International Rivers, a US-based NGO, relayed to the Committee the assessment's findings and its recommendation that any decision on mainstream dams be deferred for at least 10 years.

"[Allowing] the Xayaboury consultation process to go forward without considering the findings of the Strategic Environmental Assessment would be like getting a diagnosis of cancer and then ignoring it," she said.

During his testimony before the Senate, Richard P. Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C., expressed doubt that the process had much hope. "There are no enforceable rules and the MRC countries seem unlikely to adopt them under current circumstances," he said at the hearing.

Cronin seemed to express a belief that the health of the river could only be preserved with US intervention. "Mr. Chairman," the think-tank analyst testified at the hearing. "The Obama Administration has made the Mekong Basin the focal point of its professed reengagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN, and not a moment too soon."

Earlier this month, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a letter to the Thai Prime Minister asking him to cancel the plan to buy electricity from Xayaboury dam.

According to Imhof, the SEA's final report found that the economic benefits of the projects would be entirely enjoyed by the private developers and contractors building the projects. Imhof also claimed that the SEA determined that the projects would have relatively little impact on the power supply for Thailand and Vietnam, the two major consumers of the electricity from these projects.

"The question now facing the region's governments and the Mekong River Commission Secretariat is whether they will adopt the recommendations of the SEA," Imhof said. "Unfortunately, the writing on the wall is not good. While the SEA final report was delivered to the Commission in August, it has yet to be released to the public. We have heard from some sources that the MRC because it does not like its conclusions is attempting to distance itself from the SEA recommendations and to move forward with some of the dams."

Investing in doom

On September 24, a conference co-convened by a conservation non-governmental organization, the World Wildlife Fund, and other development partners was held in Thailand to highlight the financial, social and environmental risks and responsibilities involved in hydropower development along the lower Mekong River.

"Putting a dam on the lower Mekong River will block fish migration to spawning grounds, collapsing fish stocks," said Michael Simon, head of the People Infrastructure and Environment Program, Oxfam Australia. "Do lenders want to be associated with putting the food security of 60 million people in some of the world's poorest countries at risk?"

According to a statement released by the WWF ahead of the conference, forecasts show the productivity of lower Mekong fisheries, which are valued up to US$7 billion annually, would be reduced by up to 70 percent by the proposed dams. In addition, iconic species such as the Mekong giant catfish and Mekong dolphin would face likely extinction if the proposed dams go ahead, it said.

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