Hydro dams pace alarming
The inter-governmental consultation on the Pak Beng project, the third hydroelectric dam planned to be built on the Mekong River in Laos, tells us a lot about the future of dam building on this mighty international waterway.
At the end of their "prior consultation" on Monday in Vientiane, high-ranking officials from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam did not voice outright opposition against the Lao project in the same way some did when they discussed the first project six years before. That strategy did not help them convince Laos to delay that dam. What they have chosen instead is damage control, cautioning Laos to mitigate harmful changes to river flow, fish migration passages and other hydrological conditions.
What lies ahead for the more than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin is unknown damage -- negative environmental, social and economic effects of 11 dams developed and planned for the lower stretches of the river. On the upper Mekong, six hydroelectric dams have been built in China.
Prior consultation is required by the 1995 Mekong Agreement ratified by the four countries. It does not require their approval or allow any of them to veto these hydropower projects, but gives them a platform to discuss concerns.
Due to the river's diverse and complex ecology, scientists have cautioned that there are still gaps in knowledge and understanding about the negative impacts of a cascade of dams planned on the river and its tributaries. With many planned hydro projects in its territory, Laos is determined to become the battery of Asia. While its economic need for hydropower revenue is understandable, the pace at which Laos has driven the projects is worrying.
Earlier, Laos submitted its Xayaburi project for consultation in 2011 and the Don Sahong one in 2014. The communist country has promised its neighbours changes to the design of the Xayaburi dam to "mitigate impacts". In other words, it has pledged to opt for a dam that is less destructive. It has yet to share its revised design with the public.
While there are still questions about the negative consequences of the Xayaburi project, now 70% complete, the Lao government has accelerated the development of the second and third dams.
Its three neighbours expressed their worries over transnational impacts this and other projects will bring about. These include potential losses to the natural food chain and the degradation of the ecology that will affect the livelihoods of their people. Civil society has voiced the same concerns.
The Lao government is engaged in a risky business, gambling on the livelihoods of its mostly poor and impoverished people who rely on Mekong fish for their main source of protein. As Vietnam put it in its reply to Laos on Monday, the Pak Beng construction plan lacks a sound approach and proven methods to ensure its proposed mitigation measures are effective. Vietnam warned Laos that this and other projects including dams in China "may cause unexpected disasters" and environmental effects on Lao territory first before spreading further to other countries.
A "council study" by the Mekong River Commission, a coordinating body set up by the four countries, is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. Many hope it can help provide improved understanding about the ecological future of the Mekong basin if this and other dams are built.
The Lao government should be more cautious and put this and other planned projects on hold so it can examine the study findings, while waiting to see how its first dam operates and affects the river. It does not have to take the riskiest path to development which could prove more costly.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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