Mekong River Dam at Center of High-Stakes Conservation Fight

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Laos defers decision amid controversy that the plan would destroy a lifeline for millions in Southeast Asia

Millions of people living along the Mekong River face a crisis that could destroy their lifeline and kill off whole species of fish: construction of a dam – the first of 11 proposed in the waterway's lower basin – in Laos.

Conservationists warn that the dam could significantly reduce the critical fish stock in the Mekong, the world's most productive inland fishery.

Laos deferred a decision on the hydropower dam Tuesday in the face of strong opposition from neighboring countries, including one of its closest allies, Vietnam. But any decision could be a moot point, as a Thai newspaper reported Sunday that work on the project apparently began months ago despite questions and opposition from conservationists and Laos's downriver neighbors, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Under earlier agreements, Laos has the right to proceed on its own without approval of the other three nations. But Tuesday's move appears to indicate that the desperately poor country wants its neighbors' support, especially that of Vietnam, which is a major trading partner and political patron.

The Xayaburi dam would generate 1,260 megawatts of electricity, mostly for export to Thailand, according to the Mekong River Commission – created by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995 to oversee sustainable development along the waterway.

Laos proposed building the dam in September 2010, the main goal being to generate "foreign exchange earnings for financing socio-economic development in Lao PDR," according to the river commission.

The 3,000-mile river, which winds from China's Tibetan Plateau through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is home to nearly 1,000 freshwater fish species – including more species of giant fish, such as the Mekong giant catfish and the dog-eating catfish, than any other river. It provides a total harvest of about 2.5 million metric tons a year worth up to $6.5 billion, according to fish biologist Zeb Hogan, a research professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has studied the river for 15 years.

A critical resource

The Mekong is critical to the 60 million people who reside in the lower basin, with many of them living in poverty, according to the MRC's 2010 "State of the Basin" report.

"The livelihoods and food security of most people in the basin are closely linked to the Mekong and the resources it supports," the report said, noting that fish "provide an important contribution to regional food security, in the form of consumption of fish bought or caught and cash income from fish related activities, ranging from making nets to fish sales."

About two-thirds of the population of the lower Mekong Basin population – or 40 million people – are involved in the Mekong's fishery at least part-time or seasonally, the MRC said.

Children, families and fishermen employ a wide variety of nets along the Mekong riverbanks, including some that resemble large butterfly nets and others that float in the water, typically marked by plastic bottles. Babies in fishing families living on boats drift to sleep in swings made of fishing net, while children in Cambodia play with the tails of giant sting rays. People wash vegetables, animals, clothes and even motorcycles in the waterway.

In a review of the Thai developer's plans, the MRC expressed concerns that the project, which would be the first in the Mekong's lower basin, would negatively affect the fishery. Among other things, it said a proposed "fish ladder" for migration up and downstream was "ineffective," and would "result in species loss over time," with a "strong possibility" of the Mekong giant catfish becoming extinct.

It also said that power generation could be reduced due to sedimentation that could result in a loss of 60 percent of the reservoir's capacity and that plans for water quality and aquatic ecosystem health did not meet international best practice.

'A number of areas of uncertainty'

"The project review by the MRC Secretariat highlights a number of areas of uncertainty on which further information is needed to address fully the extent of transboundary impacts and mitigation measures required," the report said. "Some of these have implications for the financing and operation of the proposed project as well as its long-term sustainability."

In an environmental assessment prepared for the MRC, the International Center for Environmental Management proposed deferring decisions on dams for 10 years and noted: "The Mekong mainstream should never be used as a test case for proving and improving full dam hydropower technologies."

Conservation groups and some of Laos' neighbors have also expressed opposition to the project.

Officials in both Vietnam and Cambodia had urged delays on a decision, according to reports in The Saigon Times Daily and the The Phnom Penh Post.

International Rivers, a California-based group that campaigns to protect rivers, said the project would forcibly resettle more than 2,100 people and directly affect more than 202,000. Aviva Imhof, interim executive director of the group, said she worried about the precedent this first dam could set if allowed to proceed.

"Our fear is that if this project which is, its such a poor standard of development, is allowed to go forward, it will literally open the floodgates for all these other projects to go forward," she said. "That's why we believe it's crucial that the governments of the region recognize that this project and all the others present a really serious threat to the river ecology and to people's livelihoods."

The Thai developer, Ch. Karnchang Public Co. Ltd., has played down the concerns.

Developer touts benefits

In an undated report on the project, it stated that only 424 households would have to be resettled. And it stated that the project "would use the enormous potential of the huge Mekong mainstream, an international river, for the benefit of its riparian countries, especially to the Lao PDR … and Thailand, where reliable supply would satisfy its high demand." And the money generated by the electricity sales would help Laos strengthen its economy and improve social welfare, it said.

It also said the project would not alter water flow – thereby avoiding water fluctuations and bank erosion – and would improve boat navigation, maintain fish migration by providing fish-passing facilities and allow sediment to move downstream through sluices.

At Tuesday's day-long meeting, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam raised concerns about "gaps in technical knowledge and studies about the project, predicted impact on the environment and livelihoods of people in the Mekong Basin and the need for more public consultations," the MRC said in a statement.

Vietnam proposed that this project – and other hydropower projects planned for the Mekong mainstream – be delayed for at least 10 years.

"The deferment should be positively seen as a way to provide much-needed time for riparian governments to carry out comprehensive and more specific quantitative studies on all possible cumulative impacts," Le Duc Trung, head of Vietnam's delegation, said in the MRC statement. "The deferment would enable the country to secure better understanding and the confidence of the public and local communities."

Laos disagreed, saying it was not practical to extend the process and argued that the dam would not have a negative environmental impact on its neighbors."

"We appreciate all comments, (and) we will consider to accommodate all concerns," said Viraphonh Viravong, head of the Lao Delegation.

Since the four nations could not reach a consensus on how to proceed with the project, they agreed to pass it over to consideration by the MRC Council, which consists of water and environmental ministers from each of those countries. The council could call a special meeting to take up the matter, or it could wait until it's annual meeting near year's end to address the project, said Tiffany Hacker, an MRC spokeswoman.

While the criticism had been harsh in advance of Tuesday's meeting, it may already have been drowned out by the sound of bulldozers.

The Bangkok Post on Sunday reported that their reporters last week "found major road works under construction" in the area surrounding the proposed dam and "villagers preparing to be relocated" – with some told they would get about $15 in compensation. In an editorial on Monday titled "Shame on the dam builders," the Post wrote: "There is no chance that anyone connected with this sneaky endeavour will actually play straight with the public."

It also claimed the Thai government gave political backing to the decision because that country would be the major beneficiary of the dam – both in jobs and salaries from the Thai firm building it and the electricity produced by it – despite strong local opposition. However, the MRC said in its statement that Thailand's delegation had raised concerns about the project and joined the majority in passing it to the river council.

Glahan, of the MRC, said the consultation process between the four countries on the Xayaburi dam was intended to finish before preliminary construction began. Birgit Vogel, an MRC technical adviser, said she visited the proposed dam site in November 2010.

"When we visited, we couldn't see any signs of construction," she said by phone, noting she had seen the photos from the Bangkok newspaper. "Regarding the current construction, we've not been officially informed, but we will write to Lao PDR for clarification on the case."

'A free-flowing river'

Hogan, the University of Nevada biologist, said his opposition to the dam wasn't simply a matter of a conservationist opposing any dam.

"The Lower Mekong River is still a free-flowing river. It remains incredibly productive and we haven't seen any species extinctions yet," he said. "You compare that to somewhere, for instance, like the Red River in China or the Yangtze River in China, where the river is so polluted that people can no longer use it – they're not fishing there anymore, people can no longer use it for drinking water."

Forty to 70 percent of the river's fish are migratory, including some of the largest freshwater fish in the world, which are critically endangered but have managed to survive because they can complete their life cycle without impediment, Hogan said.

Ame Trandem, Mekong campaigner for International Rivers, said the river had "gotten a much-needed but temporary reprieve."

"A healthy Mekong River is central to sustainable development in the region, and simply too precious a resource to squander," she said in a statement. "Given the project's inevitable transboundary impacts, we urge the region's governments to acknowledge the widespread concern of the public and civil society groups and indefinitely cancel the Xayaburi Dam project."

Reuters contributed to this report.