Mekong River Commission Postpones Decision on Controversial Dam in Southeast Asia

But it Might be too Early to Celebrate a "Reprieve" for the Mekong River

This autumn I wrote an article for Earth Island Journal about a brewing controversy over 11 proposed hydropower dams on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River.

Photo by Prince RoyLaos says the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam and other dams would help to lift its people out of poverty.

Debate swirling around the first proposed dam, which would be situated in a remote province of northern Laos, has made international headlines this year as environmentalists across the region warn of the likely adverse effects on the Mekong and the 60 million people living in its watershed. Impoverished Laos says the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam and other dams would help to lift its people out of poverty, but critics say the consequences for the environment and food security would be staggering.

Last Thursday Xayaburi made headlines again as country delegates to the Mekong River Commission, an advisory body founded in 1995 by the four lower Mekong countries ‑— Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia — agreed to postpone their highly anticipated recommendation on the dam until further environmental studies are conducted. (They didn’t give additional details.)

The meeting came more than seven months after the last major MRC meeting on Xayaburi, at which officials from neighboring countries expressed strong concerns about the dam’s potential impacts.

Peter Bosshard, policy director at International Rivers, the US-based NGO leading an international campaign against Mekong dams, said in a Huffington Post entry that the MRC’s announcement brings a “much-needed reprieve to the threatened river.”

“We welcome the recognition that not nearly enough is known about the impacts of mainstream dams to be able to make a decision about the Xayaburi Dam,” Ame Trandem, the group’s Southeast Asia program director, said in a statement. “In line with today’s important decision, we expect that construction on the Xayaburi Dam will immediately stop and equipment will be cleared from the site.”

That’s not yet a safe assumption. Because the Mekong River Commission’s recommendations are nonbinding, Laos could theoretically build the dam over its neighbors’ objections. (Of the four lower Mekong countries, Vietnam — whose ruling Communist Party has deep ties to the Lao Communist Party — has been the most critical of the projects, calling for a ten-year moratorium on Mekong dams.) Thai media reports suggest preliminary construction at the Xayaburi site is already underway.

David Blake, a UK-based aquatics expert who has worked in Xayaburi Province, says the MRC’s decision to postpone its recommendation on the proposed dam “is in line with a past tendency to prevaricate and avoid tough decisions or sanctioning members, which has basically allowed much poorly advised development (to) occur in the past” on Mekong tributaries, Blake told the Journal by email Sunday.

China has already constructed four hydroelectric dams on the Mekong’s upper reaches. Blake predicts that if Lao officials allow dams on the Mekong they would join a “race to the bottom for the river’s aquatic ecosystems and dependent communities” initiated by Chinese dam developers.

Lao officials have promised to compensate the poor farmers and fishermen who live near the Xayaburi site, but Blake says the compensation probably won’t be adequate. If the Xayaburi dam is built, he predicts, many local people will likely be forced quit farming and fishing, leave the area, and join the ranks of the urban poor in Bangkok and other cities.

The Xayaburi dam is expected to produce 1,280 megawatts of electricity, most of which would be sent to neighboring Thailand. But International Rivers cites a new academic study calling the Thai government’s 2010 power estimates — which predict a doubling of domestic electricity demand from 2011 to 2030 — “unrealistically high.”

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