Public must be heard on Mekong dams
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Public must be heard on Mekong dams

Over the past three decades, I have witnessed the weakening of the Mekong River as dams and more dams keep sprouting up to block its course.

We locals consider ourselves the "children" of the Mekong River. Yet we have received little or no information at all about various development plans for trade and investment which will affect the most important river in Southeast Asia — and our homes.

While governments in the region collude to dam the Mekong, the local people downstream are left in the dark. 

The Manwan dam, the first dam to block the Mekong, was quietly constructed in Yunnan province, China, in 1996. 

The Thai villagers who live downstream in Chiang Rai only found out about this dam when they had to suffer abrupt and unnatural water fluctuations and a drastic decline in fish catches, which brought much hardship.

It is clear that damming the Mekong has brought about massive change to the entire ecology of the river, particularly in northern Thailand.

The Manwan dam was just the start. The Dachaoshan, Xiaowan and other dams have subsequently been constructed upstream in China. In all, eight dams are in the pipeline. Yet this massive development has failed to quench the commercial thirst of the governments in China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

They see the Mekong merely as a navigational gateway to China and envisage a waterway that caters to boats of up to 500,000 kilogrammes, which cruise from ports in Suemao, Jing Hong through the Golden Triangle down to Luang Prabang. To realise this vision, hundreds of rapids must be blasted away to create massive canals.

In less than a decade, the majestic Mekong and the livelihoods of her people have rapidly declined. The dams block fish migration, which severely affects the livelihoods of people downstream. The rapids that are habitats of fishes and other river life have been destroyed by explosives.

The famous Kai — the Mekong river seaweed — can no longer grow as a result of tidal fluctuations. Without the rapids, riverbank erosion has decimated land for dry-season plantations. Farmers now grow on the limited land available by the river, but at their own risk, since the volume of water is controlled upstream by the dams. There is no more "high season" for fishing boats on the river. 

In 2000, residents in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai, gathered to protest the changes to the Mekong and the planned blasting of the rapids for navigation of big boats. The rapids are a natural work of art and ecologically critical to aquatic life and fauna, because they help to keep the balance during the dry and flood seasons.

The villagers called on the governments of Thailand and China to reconsider their plans to "develop" the Mekong, to respect the fundamental rights of its people and to protect this vital area. Three years afterwards, the planned blasting of the Khone Pi Long rapids along the Thai-Lao border was brought to a halt, but only after 19 major rapids were destroyed in China, Myanmar and Laos. 

Over the last two decades, six dams blocking the upper reach of the Mekong have been completed. Eleven more dams are being planned in the lower reaches of the Mekong, including the Xayaburi dam which has been strongly opposed by communities in Thailand and clouded with concerns regarding its trans-boundary impact.

A case questioning the legality of the project's Power Purchase Agreement is pending in the Supreme Administrative Court of Thailand. Meanwhile, construction is ongoing and is expected to completely block the river next year.

The children of the Mekong, tens of millions of them, are worried about the damming of their "mother" river. While an onslaught of development to serve the needs of large corporations has been under way, the voices of communities who depend on the river have been ignored. 

The 260-megawatt Don Sahong hydropower dam in Champasak, the second dam planned on the lower Mekong mainstream in Laos, is undertaking a "prior consultation" process as required by the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

The forum will take place tomorrow in Pakse in southern Laos. But it looks like history is repeating itself, since construction has begun and decisions have already been made, prior to any "consultation" taking place. The process will simply serve as a ritual or a rubber stamp for the dam. 

In Thailand, the Network of Thai People in Eight Provinces in the Mekong Basin has been calling for prior and informed consent whereby transparent hearings are conducted, information is made available in advance to villagers and extensive public hearings are organised to raise public awareness and participation.

The group also demands the input made during the consultation process must be used as a basis for decision-making about the future of the project, and for exploring other alternative beyond dam construction. 

The required public consultation process on the Don Sahong dam will be held in Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom, Chiang Rai, Nong Khai and Loei next week. Yet the authorities insist the meetings are only for "information sharing" and are not in fact a "consultation process".

This is unacceptable. The Don Sahong dam will create irrevocable damage to the livelihoods and culture of people downstream in Thailand.

They have the right to voice their concerns and protect the Mekong's ecology and their way of life. And the government must listen to them.

Somkiat Khuenchiangsa is coordinator of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and the Mekong-Lanna Network on Cultural and Natural Resources Conservation based in Chiang Khong, Thailand.

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