Sold down the river

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One of the Xayaburi Dam's most vocal critics says Laos's "˜green energy' claim is spurious


A boat moves along the Mekong River at the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Laos. If built, the dam would resettle over 2,100 people and affect the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, an expert says.

The non-governmental organization, International Rivers, has long opposed damming the Lower Mekong River. For years, they have called on Thai project developers and Lao government officials to halt all construction on a massive hydropower dam in Laos' Xayaburi Province.

International Rivers' Mekong Campaigner, Ame Trandem, told Thanh Nien Weekly that moving forward with the dam would be "unimaginably irresponsible."

Thanh Nien Weekly: The Thai construction firm charged with building the dam is already moving forward with work on the Xayaburi Dam, while the Lao government has affirmed its determination to build it. What do you think about the moves?

Ame Trandem: If built, the Xayaburi Dam would forcibly resettle over 2,100 people. More than 200,000 people would suffer direct impacts to their livelihoods through the loss of their fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests. Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

To move forward with this dam would be unimaginably irresponsible, as the decision would not reflect science, reason or public interest.

If Laos chooses to proceed with the Xayaburi Dam and sidestep the mandate of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), it will have failed to negotiate in good faith and the dam may become a source of regional conflict between the riparian states.

The government of Laos should immediately halt preliminary construction on the Xayaburi Dam, which is already underway, and respect the outcome of last week's meeting [in which representatives from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam called for a delay in construction, pending further research].

Laos has claimed that the Xayaburi project meets technical requirements outlined by the MRC (a regional body, formed to oversee development on the river in 1995) and has stressed the importance of the dam for the country's economic development. What is your opinion about the issue?

In March, the MRC publicly released its expert review of the Xayaburi Dam. This review highlighted the grave environmental and social harms associated with the project and identified considerable knowledge gaps that remain and require comprehensive study.

The review also determined the dam's shortcomings in terms of meeting the minimal requirements set out by MRC's Project Design Guidelines, along with its failure to meet international best practice.

A few weeks later, the government of Laos provided the public with an unsubstantiated and misleading counter-argument, stating that the dam represents "green energy" that should be promoted and that its development will improve the quality of livelihoods in the country.

These arguments are largely untrue and have been subject to intense scrutiny, as international experts have been quick to point out that the project's Environmental Impact Assessment report is wholly inadequate.

Building a project with such far-reaching and destructive impacts cannot, by any means, be considered sustainable development. There are much better ways to meet development needs than by undermining the very resource that already provides plenty for the livelihoods and food security of millions in the region.

Could Laos build the dam if other countries, which share the lower reaches of the Mekong River, oppose its construction?

As a signatory of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the government of Laos has committed to regional cooperation to ensure sustainable development and management of the Mekong River and its resources.

Furthermore, under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, Laos is mandated to engage in regional discussion and seek a joint regional decision before proceeding with a proposed dam, and to make every effort to avoid, minimize, and mitigate harmful effects that could occur from their development.

What should regional countries do in the event that Laos proceeds with the project?

As it would be absolutely irresponsible for regional governments to approve a project that has been so poorly studied,

I hope they will do the right thing and cancel this dam.

Thailand should uphold its commitment to the 1995 Mekong Agreement by canceling its plans to purchase electricity from the dam.

Plans exist for the construction of 11 dams on the mainstream Mekong River. What will be the environmental and ecological impacts in the region, in general, and for Vietnam in particular, if all 11 dams are built?

The cascade of mainstream dams would unleash massive ecological changes on a river that feeds and employs millions of people.

This change and the dams' subsequent environmental, economic and social impacts have been well-documented in MRC's Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report, which was published in October 2010.

The dams would turn more than half the Mekong into a series of reservoirs. By blocking important fish migration routes, the dams would contribute to a 340,000-ton decline in captured fish, which is equivalent to losses of approximately US$476 million, per year.

By inundating agricultural land and blocking vital sediment and nutrient flows, the dams would lead to more than $25 million worth of losses in agricultural productivity per year. This, in turn, would put the productivity of the Mekong Delta (the "rice bowl" of Vietnam) at grave risk.

Given all these risks, the main recommendation of the SEA report is to defer, for a period of ten years, any decisions on whether to proceed with the mainstream dams, until further studies can be conducted to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed of the risks.

With the future of the Mekong at stake, regional governments should cancel plans to dam the mainstream and instead re-affirm their commitment to work together to protect its rich natural resources.

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