Dam tests spark crisis
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Dam tests spark crisis

Thailand asks Laos for Xayaburi delay

Thailand has asked the Lao government to suspend the test run of the Xayaburi dam, in order to curb the worsening drought that has hit provinces along the Mekong River.

The Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) yesterday revealed that it submitted an official letter yesterday, calling for the test run to be temporarily paused.

That move came after the ONWR found that the trial would severely impact the drought-hit provinces in the northeastern region, whose tributaries rely on water from the Mekong River.

"People living along the Mekong River have been negatively impacted because the water level in the Mekong has already dropped by over a metre. So we have contacted the Lao government and sent a letter to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), demanding that it suspend the trial for a few days," said Somkiat Prajamwong, the ONWR secretary-general.

Test runs on the Xayaburi dam started on Monday and were planned to continue until July 29, to prepare for the official start of operations in October. The Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (Egat) and its Lao counterparts co-invested in the dam and plan to use it to produce energy for Thailand.

The relevant authorities starting storing water in the dam on July 9, and Thai water level gauges below the dam found that water levels had dropped by almost 1.8 metres. This level is the lowest in 28 years, according to the ONWR.

Meanwhile, a gauge in Chiang Rai province found that levels had dropped from 2.7 metres to just above 2 metres. Last week, the water level in the Mekong River also reached one of its lowest points while officials were conducting maintenance on the Jinghong dam in China, said Mr Somkiat.

The Chinese government had informed the Thai government prior to the maintenance work, Mr Somkiat said. The water situation at the dam in China will return to normal by tomorrow, he added.

Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, the coordinator of the Mekong Conservation Network in the North, said the group will submit a letter to Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Chinese embassy, demanding an urgent meeting between the Mekong countries to deal with the problem.

"The northeastern region has been the hardest hit since the Xayaburi dam started discharging water downstream. The people are feeling the effects of this dam and others that have been built on the Mekong River. It's about time to review other planned projects [relating to the dams]," he said.

He added that the work will also affect the supply of fish in the Mekong.

"Less water in the Mekong during the rainy season means fish that usually come to lay eggs cannot swim and lay their eggs in the tributaries of the Mekong like they did in the past," said Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, adding that fish is the main source of protein for people living along the river.

The latest MRC report showed that dam projects on the Mekong River will reduce aquatic life by 40% by 2020, and predicted that 80% of the fish supply will be depleted by 2040.

Thailand will be severely impacted, as its fish stocks in the Mekong River will decline by 55%, while Laos will be reduced by 50%, Cambodia by 35% and Vietnam by 30%.

Pianporn Deetes of the International Rivers campaign group, said the impacts of the Xayaburi dam came early. "Although the dam is 98% complete and is not yet operating, the ecological impacts are already serious," she said.

She urged the government and society to ask the operators of the Xayaburi dam to share the steps that they would take to solve the water flow problem.

"I wonder whether the Xayaburi dam project has any mitigation plans, because the Lao government and Thai investors never said the dam would have an ecological impact," said Ms Pianporn.

Previously, the Thai Mekong People's Network in Eight Provinces sent a letter to Egat demanding mitigation measures be taken to help people impacted by the Xayaburi dam.

Egat responded by saying it is confident that the potential environmental impact would be minimal and therefore would not have any impact.

In a related development, the Chinese government yesterday agreed to continue sharing hydrological data with the MRC, which will improve the monitoring ability to predict floods in Mekong countries. They will share the data from June 1 until Oct 31 every year, according to the MRC press release.

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