Laos ignores dam flak
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Laos ignores dam flak

The Lao government is forging ahead with the construction of the massive Don Sahong dam, close to the tri-border area with Thailand and Cambodia, within the next few weeks. The dam is yet another large-scale project being undertaken by Vientiane to make Laos "the battery of Southeast Asia". Under the programme, Laos intends to become a serious electricity exporter to its neighbours. This may happen. But what is already certain to happen is that the projects will disrupt the Mekong River and affect the people of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand like never before.

On its own, the Don Sahong dam project is controversial. As part of the big picture, however, it has taken on even greater significance. Vientiane plans to send officials to Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Bangkok within the next couple of weeks to inform the countries that work on the dam will start before the end of the month. Despite three nations sharing the Mekong River with Laos, none will be consulted on their opinion or invited to object or provide alternatives to the impending large-scale monstrosity.

This is, of course, pretty much the way Laos has run its dam-building programme from day one. And it is a disturbing way to operate. Even as the government officially paused to listen to its neighbours' feedback about the Xayaburi dam, construction was rolling ahead full tilt. That dam, which drew fierce opposition from almost everyone except the Lao and Thai governments, is now well on its way to completion. Recent visitors to the site photographed and described a massive project that has changed the river and life in the area, and it is not even operating yet.

Lao authorities have been working on Don Sahong secretly up until recently. Daovong Phonekeo, director-general of the Energy Policy and Planning Department at the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, oversaw the hiring of Malaysian developer Mega First for the bulk of the construction. Site preparation close to Ubon Ratchathani province proceeded even as Laos went through the motions of "consulting" with its Mekong neighbours. Notably, last June's negotiations facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on the dam failed dismally with no agreement reached.

Some governments might see this as a setback. But not Laos. The MRC -- which exists to facilitate government contacts for river-related development -- advised that it would try to solve the problem through diplomatic channels since the discussion failed to bring about agreement on the Don Sahong dam project. Laos treated the situation as the end of consultations and went ahead to begin construction. In August, the National Assembly of Laos approved the dam construction plans.

A recent Bloomberg survey found Asian governments are constructing or have plans to build some 500 new, large dams. The report cites academic and former World Bank adviser, Michael Cernea, saying the rising waters behind the dams will flood out people "like pests". He is right. And the displaced populations in Chinese and Lao parts of the Mekong have not even been properly resettled.

The negative impact of the Don Sahong dam is almost wholly borne by Cambodians. The already falling fish stocks in Tonle Sap Lake will further diminish, while Mekong water currents and downstream rivers and creeks will change. More hydro-generated electricity may be available -- but seemingly without any accepted regional plan on just when enough is enough. It is disappointing Laos would do all this without regional cooperation.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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