Thailand appears to be the region's last hope in opposing an environmentally disastrous hydropower dam in northern Laos.
Environmental activists are hoping that Thailand will put the breaks on Laos' plans to begin construction of an enormous hydropower dam in its mountainous Xayaburi Province.
Others fear that no one in South-East Asia is prepared to oppose the project, which could cause irreversible damage to the river and the millions whose lives depend on it.
Last September, Laos announced that Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand had until April 22 to present official opinions on the construction of the Xayaburi dam to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) an intergovernmental advisory body, to which they are all members.
Three weeks later, an independent scientific review commissioned by the MRC called for a decade-long moratorium of all dam construction on the lower reaches of the river.
The study underlined the grave environmental and economic impact that would result from the construction of 12 proposed dams on the Mekong River.
Despite the findings, Laos, an impoverished and fast-developing land-locked country, appears to be determined to go ahead with the construction of the Xayaburi dam"”the largest and most advanced of the dozen.
Thai contractors and banks stand ready to supply the means to that end.
"There will be no need for any extension," a Laotian delegate announced during a February 14 meeting of MRC delegates in Cambodia. "We hope and expect that the unanimous agreement will be reached."
Laos was not clear on what would happen if any country opposed the project. But it does not appear that any minor objections would halt their determination to proceed.
"The final decision as to how to further proceed with the [Xayaburi] project development would of course be solely subject to the Lao government," the delegate stated.
Heroes and villains
While some in the region have offered guarded criticism for Laos' decision to ignore calls for a moratorium on construction, Thai opponents have presented the most ardent objections.
At the same time, Thailand has one of the largest financial stakes in the project.
Ninety-five percent of the electricity produced by the dam is slated to be purchased by the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand. Four Thai banks are financing the project none of which responded to requests for comment as of press time.
"Given that both the builder and the [four] financers are from Thailand, we have become very "˜engaged' with this project," said Prasarn Marukpita, chair of the subcommittee on Mekong River development in the Thai Senate.
Marukpita has lambasted Laos for snubbing repeated warnings from environmental experts that the impact of the Xayaburi dam will be far-reaching and affect the livelihoods of more than 60 million people.
"... Laos could not wait, demonstrating that Laos sees the Mekong as [its] own river," Marukpita said.
Located in a mountainous valley in northern Laos, the proposed Xayaburi dam is the most advanced of eleven large dams planned for the Lower Mekong River's mainstream.
The proposed dams will cause irreversible and permanent ecological change to the Mekong River. The dams would disrupt the delicate balances and seasonal shifts that support fisheries and downstream agriculture, according to the MRC's October study.
"We are very much concerned about the reaction of Laos in relation to their movement toward the Xayaburi dam," said Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of the Foundation for Ecological
Recovery, a Bangkok-based nonprofit organization. "Xayaburi is by no means solely a "˜Laotian project.'"
The die is cast
In mid-2007, Thailand's Ch. Karnchang Public Company, the dam builder, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Laos government to produce a feasibility study for the project.
Since Laos announced that it planned to proceed with the project, the Lao government and the MRC have drawn flak from groups who claim that very little information has been supplied regarding the environmental and ecological effects the dam might have.
Ame Trandem, a campaigner at the US-based environmental group International Rivers has charged that the MRC has dragged its feet on effectively disseminating its scientific findings by withholding certain important project documents and failing to translate others into local languages.
Trandem has also accused the body of being slow to organize public forums on the project and indicated that an environmental impact study specific to the Xayaburi dam has yet to be released.
"It was only in January 2011 that the MRC finally explained when the consultations would take place," she said.
Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC, countered that all relevant information has been presented to participating stakeholders during the national consultations of each country.
"We have recently been informed by the Lao National Mekong Committee that the Xayaburi project feasibility study is available on the developer's website, www.xayaburi.com," Bird said.
Trandem of International Rivers said that without translating these findings into the region's various languages, the MRC is effectively stonewalling the people that will be most affected by the dam's construction.
"Who will actually lose and who will gain from Xayaburi dam? ... My question now would be, can we just state that we are going completely against the project?" said Lamlek Nilnuan, a Thai villager from Sakorn Nakorn Province during a public meeting held in Thailand on February 10. "We know nothing about this project ... Will the 'stakeholder' including the Thai company be able to tell us the truth about the project before it [starts]?"
At a public meeting held Tuesday (February 22) in the northern Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh, Vietnamese experts and officials also urged a halt to the Xayaburi dam, citing a lack of information.
As the Thai people have become increasingly vocal in opposing the dam, experts believe that the nation is the region's last hope for an effective opposition.
Senator Marukpita said he was convinced that the campaign against the dam building has gained momentum.
"NGOs in Thailand will demand that the Thai government... reconsider the purchase of electricity from the dam," he said.
The Senator said that if the government failed to reconsider its deal with Laos, it will likely face opposition in the parliament.
"[The electricity purchase] may breach Article 190 of our Constitution, which requires approval from the Thai Parliament before signing any contract that may affect the Thai territory," he said.
Marukpita acknowledged, on the one hand, that Thailand would play a crucial role in deciding the fate of the dam construction. But, on the other, he said the country should not be left alone in this battle.
"I'd expect Vietnam to get more vocal soon," he said. "Cambodia will join force, but may not be as articulate as Vietnam and Thailand."
Daoroung of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery said she hoped that the current movement on the Xayaburi project is a good lesson for all. "We still have another 11 projects, waiting to be built by Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and even French companies in this region," Daoroung said. "If the "˜regional' [consciousness] cannot emerge among us now, and the governments and people in the region cannot work together, I think the impact and change in everyone's life will be really overwhelming in the coming decade."