Dam Bad

Laos’ Plans to Dam the Mekong Could Open the Floodgates to Further Dams on the River

Sathian Megboon is a DJ for 94.5 FM, a radio station in northeast Thailand. It’s a fun gig, he says, because the station broadcasts across the Mekong River to Vientiane, the tiny capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which gives him the chance to take requests from listeners in two countries. Last year, listeners started calling more than usual, but not to ask for the folk songs Sathian likes to play. They wanted to know what he thought of reports that a Thai company was planning to build a $3.5 billion dam a few hundred kilometers upstream on the Lao-Thai border in a remote and impoverished mountain area.

Sathian’s Vientiane listeners may have read about the proposed Xayaburi dam in The Vientiane Times, a mouthpiece for the secretive Lao Communist Party. But they wanted the real story: Namely, how would a hydropower dam in Xayaburi Province affect them?

photo of an open boat with several people on it being paddled over a huge expans of river, mountains in the backgroundphoto courtesy International Rivers

The DJ said he wasn’t sure, because he isn’t a politician or hydropower expert. But building dams on the Mekong – the world’s tenth-longest river – seemed to him a terrible idea. China, which borders northern Laos, built four hydroelectric dams on the upper Mekong between 1986 and 2009. Sathian and his neighbors say those dams have changed the Mekong’s “flood pulse,” the seasonal ebb and flow that regulates agriculture and fishing and feeds the Lower Mekong Basin’s 60 million residents. According to elder farmers who grew up beside the Mekong, erratic flow patterns that appeared in the 1990s have made it harder to grow staple crops such as chili peppers, eggplants, and corn. They say they cannot imagine how additional dams would improve the situation.

Sathian and his neighbors claim that, in 2007, Chinese dams triggered violent flooding. “It happened very fast, and we didn’t have any warning,” Sathian, who is 63 and generously tattooed, told me on a lethargic mid-April afternoon. “It wasn’t raining, but the river flooded for seven days! If they build a new dam in Xayaburi, I’m afraid the next flood could be like a tsunami.”

We were standing on the banks of the Mekong under a white banner that said no mekong dams in English. Looking across the river, I saw monks in orange robes bathing against the backdrop of Vientiane’s unassuming skyline. Fishing skiffs were gliding downstream, and the air felt sticky and stagnant. It was hard to imagine that a planned hydropower dam hundreds of miles upstream, in the mountains of landlocked Laos, had caused such fear. But a few weeks earlier, 263 nongovernmental organizations from 51 countries had written to the Lao prime minister and urged him to cancel the project. Apparently Xayaburi was kind of a big deal.

Hydropower dams are common in Southeast Asia and have already been constructed on some of Mekong’s tributaries. But the 1,280-megawatt Xayaburi dam, which Laos proposed last September, would be the first of 11 dams planned for the river’s mainstream. Nine would be sited in Laos, the other two in Cambodia. Along with a proposed “river diversion” project in Laos, the dams could supply about 65 terawatt hours of electricity per year – up to 8 percent of the Mekong region’s projected 2025 electricity demand and slightly less energy than Americans use each year to power their televisions. About 90 percent of the power would go to Vietnam and Thailand.

Environmental activists and civil society groups across Southeast Asia say that if the Xayaburi dam is built, it will lay the political groundwork for the other dams, which they fear would have devastating cumulative impacts on ecosystems and livelihoods. They also worry that hydropower developers are ignoring climate change, which, according to scientists, will affect Mekong hydrology this century. The activists have rallied behind a 2010 study by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) that recommended a ten-year moratorium on new Mekong dams because the dams, if built, would provoke “permanent and irreversible” social and environmental consequences.

“We need food, not electricity,” says Mu Panmeesri, a 27-year-old schoolteacher who lives downstream of Sathian Megboon and organizes anti-Xayaburi rallies in his town. “We can’t eat electricity.”

The Lao PDR, a former French colony that declared independence in 1945, has been governed by one political party for the last 36 years. Usually, if Lao officials want to build something, a road, a bridge, or a massive dam, it would probably be built. But last year’s Xayaburi proposal triggered a review process moderated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an advisory body formed in 1995 by the four lower Mekong countries – Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia – to promote sustainable development in the Lower Mekong Basin.

Encouraging sustainable development is no small task in Southeast Asia, where environmental regulations are thin and civil society has little or no voice. Powerful governments often approve energy projects without consulting their citizens or requiring detailed environmental impact assessments. But the four lower Mekong countries agreed in 1995 to initiate a multilateral MRC review if one of them ever proposed a dam on the river’s mainstream. So environmental groups and local dam opponents are relying on this untested international body to stop the Xayaburi project.

Xayaburi is the first mainstream dam proposed for the lower Mekong since 1995, and the MRC review that began last fall is the first of its kind. MRC member countries can’t legally stop Laos from damming the Mekong, but they can commission feasibility studies and draft statements recommending the best course of action. The MRC review process for the Xayaburi dam was supposed to end in April, but as I write these words in August, analysts aren’t sure when the process will end or whether Laos will heed its neighbors’ recommendations. Regardless, it’s clear that the MRC process has sparked an important public debate about energy, ecology, and food security in Southeast Asia – an achievement in itself for a region plagued by poverty, corruption, and the legacy of war.

Xayaburi appears to be a bellwether of regional environmental diplomacy. Decisions made in the coming months on Xayaburi and other dams will affect millions of people, perhaps for generations. In 50 years, will people who live near the Mekong have enough to water to drink and food to eat? Will Mekong countries establish procedures for sharing their river resources, or will diplomatic scuffles escalate to armed stand-offs? How best can poor countries’ demands for energy be balanced with the interests of riverine communities?

The Xayaburi dam would threaten at least 41 of the Mekong’s 1,300 fish species and cause $476 million in direct losses through reduced fish harvests.

These questions invite speculation about whether dams are the best way to meet the region’s rising electricity demand, which is predicted to increase each year until 2025. The region has what ICEM calls a “massive potential for hydropower,” but sediment buildup in dam reservoirs can hinder medium- and long-term capacity; sedimentation at the Xayaburi dam, according to the MRC, would decrease the dam’s output by up to 60 percent in 30 years. Critics charge that the electricity from Mekong dams wouldn’t justify the negative impacts the dams would have on watersheds, fisheries, and food production. Rather than dam the Mekong, they say, Mekong countries should promote wind turbines and solar panels.

Laos counters that Mekong dams, in addition to providing energy for the regional grid, would help lift Laotians out of poverty. While many rural development experts say Laos should temporarily or permanently postpone Mekong dams, others suggest the dams, though imperfect, may be a reasonable way for Laos – which was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and remains one of the world’s poorest countries – to achieve its goal of escaping from UN-designated “Least Developed Country” status. Lao officials say they want their country to be the “battery of Southeast Asia.”

Dams on the Mekong’s mainstream would surely have negative impacts on downstream communities and ecosystems, says Stuart Ling, who directs the Lao office of a Belgian NGO called VECO. “But the Lao government has GDP targets, and these dams that are going ahead were in the system a long time ago because Laos is trying to develop. If Laos doesn’t get its revenue from generating hydropower, how will it get its revenue?”

Dams were first proposed for the Mekong in the 1950s, but the Cold War put them on hold. By the time they were re-proposed in the 1990s, writes Philip Hirsch, a Mekong expert at the University of Sydney, resistance from environmental groups made them “unpalatable.” Renewed interest in developing hydropower in the Lower Mekong Basin has escalated since 2006 in tandem with rising private investment in power infrastructure. Privately owned hydropower companies are filling a void left by multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are less eager than they once were to fund hydropower projects. One reason is that a 2000 report by the World Commission on Dams found dams had displaced 40 to 80 million people worldwide, and that “in too many cases,” the associated social and environmental costs were “unacceptable and often unnecessary.”

Private developers aren’t held to the same environmental regulations that multilateral institutions would be. But the financiers and developers do have to weather criticism from environmental groups – particularly the Berkeley-based NGO International Rivers, which employs a full-time “Mekong Campaigner.”

Resistance to Xayaburi by raises the question: If the idea of damming the Mekong is unpalatable to so many people, why are developers – and the Lao and Cambodian governments – willing to risk drawing flak?

photo of a man sitting in a wooden boat, a river and other similar boatsphoto courtesy Mike IvesThe Mekong has the world’s most productive inland fishery and is a major source of
livelihood for millions of people.

One explanation is China. The four Mekong dams the Chinese built pump more water downstream in the dry season than the river would otherwise supply. By suppressing the Mekong’s flood pulse, they have created an economic incentive for downstream developers, who at the moment have access to a steadier water supply. China has become a hydropower “role model” for downstream neighbors, says Prescott College Professor Ed Grumbine: Southeast Asian countries are thinking, “If China is using the river as a resource and gaining greatly from it, then why can’t we do the same thing?”

Indeed, why not? Yes, you can make a case – as developers have and will – that hydropower is a “green” alternative to coal and nuclear power. But it is hard to argue that dams in Laos promote environmental sustainability or benefit the communities they displace. Since the Lao Communist Party seized power in 1975 after a protracted civil war, its primary development strategy has been to sell timber, rubber, mineral, and hydropower rights to foreign bidders.

“The combination of neoliberal economic policies, foreign direct investment, and a nontransparent, nepotistic kind of government [in Laos] is a real toxic mix,” says Ian Baird, an environmental expert who has worked there for years. Earnings are not trickling down to everyday Laotians. Vientiane may have fancy hotels and restaurants, but a typical Lao village is a smattering of bamboo huts. According to the United Nations, food insecurity is “widespread” across the country – “alarmingly high” in rural areas – and half of all children under five in Laos are “chronically malnourished.”

Baird, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has seen how hydropower affects Lao communities, and he’s not impressed. This spring, as Baird monitored the Xayaburi dam controversy, he was also analyzing a proposal to dam Khone Falls, the only large waterfall on the lower and middle Mekong. He says the project would negatively affect the nutrition of hundreds of thousands of people.

“I’m not an unreasonable person,” Baird told me. “If you’re building a dam, you should really cost it out in terms of environmental and social impacts and compensate people for the life of the project. But to be honest, I can’t tell you about a hydropower project in Laos where they’ve done a good job.”

Environmental activists say a wild Mekong is worth fighting for. The river has the world’s most productive inland fishery and is a major source of livelihood for millions of people. The Xayaburi dam would threaten at least 41 of the Mekong’s 1,300 fish species and cause $476 million in direct losses through reduced fish harvests – an estimate that doesn’t account for fisheries in Vietnam’s fertile Mekong River Delta.

Proponents of the dam say it would have “fish ladders” and other fish-friendly technologies, but aquaculture experts say those technologies wouldn’t prevent fish extinctions. A study by the World Wildlife Fund and other groups noted that the ladders would be “challenging” even for strong Northern Hemisphere salmon. “If fish can’t migrate, they don’t breed,” explains Stuart Chapman, WWF’s Greater Mekong Program manager. “This will lead to a collapse of the fishery.”

The dams would also disrupt the production of rice and other crops along Mekong’s banks. Thailand and Vietnam are the world’s first and second-largest rice exporters, respectively, and farmers in the Mekong River Basin depend on the river to irrigate 6.6 million hectares of farmland. According to ICEM’s 2010 study, the dams would destroy about half of the Mekong’s riverbank gardens and cost about $25 million per year in lost agricultural land.

How about earthquakes? The concerned residents I met in Thailand worry earthquakes would destroy Mekong dams and cause catastrophic floods worse than the flood that scared them in 2007. After the disastrous March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, two Chinese earthquake experts wrote to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, to warn that building dams in Southwest China on the Mekong and two other rivers (the Salween or Nu and the Yangtze), was ludicrous because the region lies on an active fault line. If an earthquake were to destroy a dam on a river that has other dams, they predicted a torrent of water, mud, and rocks could careen downstream and set off a “chain reaction” of devastation.

And then there is climate change. The Mekong River begins in the Himalayas and flows 4,180 kilometers to the Vietnamese coast. Emerging research suggests that increased glacial melting in mountainous Central Asia will likely increase downstream river flows for a few decades but ultimately cause late-summer water shortages. “Climate change will exacerbate the impact of hydropower dams on the downstream Mekong Delta, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” says Dr. Kien Tran-Mai, the MRC’s climate change program officer. Because not enough research has been done on the cumulative impacts of climate change on the Mekong, Dr. Kien told me, the MRC doesn’t require developers to plan for climate change in their proposals. The commission is not ignoring climate change, he insists, but as a mere advisory body it cannot require hydropower developers to create proposals based on climate modeling that doesn’t yet exist.

photo of women and a small child carrying burdens near a riverphoto courtesy International RiversFood insecurity is widespread in Laos, which is one of the poorest countries
in the world.

Hydropower proponents argue that when climate change alters the Mekong’s flow patterns, dam operators could simply increase water flow during dry periods and reduce it when water levels are too high. The argument sounds logical, Dr. Kien says, but it doesn’t make him feel better, because dam operators are primarily concerned with “economic benefit and electricity generation.”

Sathian Megboon and other concerned citizens in Thailand say they don’t believe dam operators will ever look out for their best interests. “We’re controlled by China,” Somphong Paratphom, a village chief, said in April as he drove me across a Mekong sandbar in his pickup truck. “If the Chinese wanted to kill us, they could just open the dam’s gates. And the danger from Xayaburi is twice as high as it was in China, because China is farther away! If they build a dam in Xayaburi, why wouldn’t flooding happen again?”

On April 19, as resistance to Xayaburi was building, diplomats from the four lower Mekong countries met at the MRC headquarters in Vientiane to draft their final recommendation. But the leaders couldn’t reach a consensus. Instead, they agreed on a follow-up meeting at an unspecified date. Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam issued separate statements saying more study was needed on the Xayaburi dam’s “transboundary impacts.” Vietnam issued the strongest statement, calling for a ten-year moratorium on new Mekong dams. Laos directed the dam’s Thai developer, Ch. Karnchang, to fund a new study of the dam’s potential environmental impacts.

One thing, Professor Ed Grumbine said, was clear: The decision over whether to build the dam would be based not on science, but politics.

Would Laos really allow a Bangkok developer to build the Xayaburi dam without waiting for the MRC process to formally conclude? Despite a swirl of rumors on the business pages of Thai newspapers suggesting that the dam was still moving forward, it seemed unlikely to some Laos experts that Laos would build the dam over Vietnam’s objection. “I think there’s a good chance this project is dead,” said Baird, the University of Wisconsin professor, noting it was “unprecedented” since 1975 for Vietnam to publicly disagree with Laos, a close ally. “Considering the loss of face, what Lao politician would be willing to put his neck on the line and propose this project again?”

The plot twisted again in late June, when International Rivers released two leaked letters suggesting Laos was indeed moving forward with the project. In the first letter, dated June 8, an official from Laos’s Ministry of Energy and Mines informs the Xayaburi Power Company – a subsidiary of Ch. Karnchang – that a consulting firm has reviewed the company’s Xayaburi dam proposal and concluded that Laos has “taken all legitimate concerns from member countries into consideration.” (A spokesperson for Ch. Karnchang declined to comment for this article.) In the second letter, dated June 9, the chairman of the company’s board of directors writes to the governor of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and says the company is ready to execute a power of purchase agreement at the Thai government’s earliest convenience.

On August 4, International Rivers reported that a “substantial construction camp” with “at least a few hundred workers” had been established near the dam site. It seemed that the Lao Communist Party was prepared to defy Vietnam, its longtime political ally.

It’s hard to get around in Laos. The countryside is mountainous, and the roads are in deplorable shape. To get near the site of the Xayaburi dam, you have to take a rickety school bus from Luang Prabang, the ancient Lao capital, toward Xayaburi City. Thirty minutes into the ride, the bus is traversing mountain passes and barreling past fields of upland sticky rice. When the road turns to dirt, windows shake as the wheels slam into potholes.

The decision whether to build the dam will be based not on science, but politics.

I made the journey in late April with a Lao friend. After bumping along for a few hours, the bus crossed the Mekong in a ferry, and a few minutes later it left us in a dusty roadside village about fifteen kilometers north of Xayaburi City. We approached a group of people sitting on the porch of a simple concrete house. The dam site was nearby, they said, but in order to visit we had to get permission from the police.

The police station was across the street, and we approached warily. Inside, two officers sat at a wooden table in a bare room. They didn’t look happy to see us, and they asked for my passport. When I refused, they said we couldn’t visit the site.

We returned to the village and paid two men to drive us back to the Mekong on their motorbikes. Then we paid a few Lao villagers to take us downriver in their orange fishing skiff. It would take too long – about five hours – to motor all the way to the dam site, but they could introduce us to fisherman in nearby villages who would be displaced by the dam.

We climbed into the skiff and were soon lurching down the river. The skiff’s 5.5 horsepower engine drowned out conversation, but it could barely keep the craft straight in the muddy Mekong’s strong current. Against a mountain backdrop, we saw fishermen inspecting nets that were strung across a line of riverside boulders. Our guide recognized the men and pulled the skiff ashore.

What had they heard about the Xayaburi dam? As far as they knew, they said, it was going to be built. The fishermen said a few people representing the Thai dam developer had visited their villages and offered, as compensation for the dam, to build them new homes, plus a hospital and a school, and to give them loans – the equivalent of roughly $250 per family – to help them buy livestock. The men, who support their families on about $500 per year, said they were okay with moving to a new village and planting new gardens, so long as the company followed through on its promises.

Rural development experts tell me that Lao villagers who have been displaced by hydropower dams on Mekong tributaries usually end up worse off even if companies provide compensation. In many cases, villagers not only lose their main source of livelihood but also incur debts as they struggle to survive on their new land, which may be less productive than the parcels they left behind. Eventually, they may move to cities like Bangkok and join the ranks of the urban poor.

“The dam will be good and bad for me,” said Harm, a wiry 25-year-old who stood beside a fishing net. “Good because the company will build us a school and we’ll get new jobs, bad because we’ll have to leave our villages, and we won’t be able to fish anymore.”

Harm looked at the river. He didn’t look angry. “This is all going to become a big pond,” he said. “But that’s what the government decided, and we have to respect the government.”

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