Dams a threat to Mekong

Dams a threat to Mekong

This picture taken in July shows the site of the Xayaburi hydropower project, the first to be built on the lower Mekong River, in Laos. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
This picture taken in July shows the site of the Xayaburi hydropower project, the first to be built on the lower Mekong River, in Laos. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

Almost a decade ago, Vietnam was the most vocal neighbour in opposing Laos' first dam on the Mekong River. Now, it has become a partner in the Lao government's Luang Prabang dam project -- its fifth on the mighty river. This new partnership is worrying, as is the rapid pace of overall Mekong hydropower development.

For one thing, the region is likely to lose its most influential opponent to the increasing damming of the river -- a trend which has caused concern over its impact on the ecosystems and livelihoods of about 60 million people in the Mekong basin.

This month, the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) began a six-month "prior consultation" on the Luang Prabang project to allow the four members -- Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia -- to discuss and raise their concerns. This is a condition that was set forth in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

Construction of the 1,460-MW Luang Prabang dam is expected to begin next year and be finished by 2027. To the surprise of many, it will be developed by Vietnam's state-owned PetroVietnam Power Corporation.

Positioning itself as "the battery of Asia", Laos plans to build nine dams on the Mekong mainstream and several others on its tributaries. The majority of the power will be sold to its neighbours, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia also plans to build two dams on the Mekong and others on its tributaries.

In late 2010, Laos officially notified the other three countries of its intention to build the first Xayaburi dam on the Mekong, forcing all of them to discuss the contentious issue as well as commission studies on the transboundary social and environmental impacts associated with this and other similar projects.

During that time, Vietnam was highly vocal, calling for a 10-year deferral of the projects as its Mekong Delta would likely be affected by potential changes to the river's flow. Its opposition helped encourage intense discussion and more studies to be carried out.

The Lao government went ahead with Xayaburi dam but promised a raft of measures to mitigate potential impacts such as changes to the sediment and fish migration patterns. After that, it tabled three more projects -- Don Sahong, Pak Beng and Pak Lay -- for consultation.

Vietnam's new partnership with Laos could weaken the consultation process -- already branded by civil society as flawed. This month, a coalition of NGOs issued a warning that the many Mekong dams would transform the free-flowing river into a series of lakes that would irreparably damage ecological systems.

Citing an MRC report last year, the group also highlighted that the dams were not necessary to meet the Mekong region's energy needs because Thailand, which is a major buyer, plans to substantially cut its power imports.

This year's unusual drought and flooding remind us that climate change will continue to threaten the environment and people in the region. Dam building will make it worse for people living along the Mekong.

Instead of rushing ahead with new projects, the Lao government should have waited to see how the unproven mitigation measures of the Xayaburi project work and observed associated environmental impacts.

With Vietnam's state-run firm being the developer of the Luang Prabang project, many expect the ongoing consultations to be nothing more than a formality. Vietnamese officials must prove them wrong by applying the same level of scrutiny that they did during the discussions on the Xayaburi project. They must not forget that the livelihoods of Vietnamese people in the Mekong Delta will be at stake.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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