Mekong River Wins Temporary Reprieve

Apr 25, 2011
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Member countries of the Mekong River Commission fail to agree on the building of a controversial dam.

638 A fisherman plying his trade on the waters of the Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia. The lake is Cambodia’s largest and provides income to tens of thousands of families but the traditional fishing industry here is under threat from climate stresses and commercial fishing. Experts estimate millions could be affected by the dam. (Photo credit: David Gough)


The Mekong – the world's 12th-longest river and a lifeline for millions – has won a temporary reprieve from the construction of a controversial dam in Laos when the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) failed to reach an agreement, deferring the decision to ministerial level later this year.

"This is the immediate next step," Tiffany Hacker, a spokeswoman for the MRC, told IRIN on April 20 from Vientiane. "Although countries were unable to reach a conclusion [to proceed with the dam], they agreed that it needed to be taken to the ministerial level."

On April 19, officials from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam gathered in the Lao capital to discuss the impact of the US$3.8 billion Xayaburi dam, the first of a series of proposed hydropower dams along the river.

The dam could result in the extinction of approximately 41 fish species.

"This is the spirit of Mekong cooperation – member countries have consulted for the past six months, and whereas they could not come to a common conclusion in yesterday's meeting, they will continue to work together at the ministerial level until a consensus is reached," Hacker said.

The MRC's ministerial council generally meets once year in October or November. However, a special session for the Xayaburi project may be held before then, she added.


Welcome decision

The announcement was welcomed by environmentalists who say the dam would have devastating environmental, social and economic consequences.

"We are pleased to see that Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have recognised the trans-boundary impacts of the project and the need for further research and public consultation," Carl Middleton, a representative of the US-based environmental group International Rivers, said.

But despite the deferment, Thai media reports suggest construction of the dam by Laos has already begun, with an access road under construction since November and local residents being offered compensation of as little as $15 to relocate.

"Given the decision [on April 19], Laos should immediately stop construction of the project and respect that the decision has been referred to a higher level," Middleton said. Lao officials at the meeting insisted there was no need to delay the project and that trans-boundary environmental impacts on other riparian countries would be unlikely. Laos says the dam would stimulate its $6 billion economy and improve the lives of its 5.9 million people. However, Vientiane ended up yielding to objections by downstream countries Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, which raised their concerns at the meeting about gaps in technical knowledge and studies about the project.

If the project goes ahead, approximately 2,100 people would be forcibly relocated and more than 200,000 would be directly affected, according to an independent review of the project commissioned by the MRC.

International Rivers says the dam could result in the extinction of approximately 41 fish species, including the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish, while an additional 23 to 100 migratory fish species would be threatened through a blocked fish migration route.

"These impacts in turn will affect the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the region," the group said in a statement.

Local residents are offered compensation of as little as $15 to relocate.

The Mekong and its tributaries provide food, water and transportation for about 60 million people in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. About 40 million people are involved in the Mekong's fishery industry part-time or seasonally, according to the MRC.

Influential US Senator Jim Web has also voiced criticism of the project, saying it failed to meet international standards. "Numerous scientific studies have concluded that construction of the Xayaburi Dam and other proposed mainstream dams will have devastating environmental, economic, and social consequences for the entire Mekong sub-region," he said in a statement, adding that such dams could threaten the stability of Southeast Asia.

The Xayaburi Dam is one of 11 proposed for the lower Mekong mainstream due to increasing power demand in the region of about 6-7% a year, driven mainly by Thailand and Vietnam.

Both countries could face significant energy shortfalls in the near future. If built, the Xayaburi dam is expected to begin commercial operation in 2019, with about 95% of the project's 1,260MW capacity to be exported to Thailand.


The article was first published in IRIN in April 2011.