Mekong River Dam Decision Delayed

Tim Johnston in Bangkok
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Originally published in The Financial Times

A decision on whether to allow a controversial $3.8bn hydroelectric dam across the Mekong river has been delayed, raising fresh doubts over a project that Laos hopes will establish it as the "battery of south-east Asia".

The Mekong River Commission, which is made up of representatives of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, had been due to make its decision on Tuesday. But instead it has passed the final judgment on whether to give the green light to the Xayaburi dam in Laos, to regional ministers.

The delegates did not set a date for a final decision but the delay will be seen as a further example of how competing environmental, energy and food interests are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile in one of the world's fastest-growing regions.

Laos urged the meeting to support the plan, arguing that the transnational effects would be minimal, but Cambodia and Vietnam, both of which are downstream of the proposed project, said that there were too many gaps in environmental surveys to allow it to go ahead. Vietnam called for a 10-year moratorium on dams on the mainstream of the lower Mekong.

The project is central to a Laotian desire to become the "battery of south-east Asia", harnessing its vast hydroelectric potential to work for the already energy-hungry economies of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Most of the output from the project, which is 30 per cent owned by Thailand's CH Karnchang, the dam's developer, is earmarked for sale to the Thai grid.

But Laos has been criticised for allowing preparatory work, including the building of an access road, before the commission's decision, although even that would not be binding.

The Xayaburi dam is central to plans to boost income in impoverished Laos, but opponents say it would have a devastating effect on the region's food security and environment.

Ecologists warn that although hydroelectric dams have a relatively small carbon footprint, they do not come without a cost.

The 1,285MW Xayaburi would be the first of 11 hydroelectric schemes proposed for the lower Mekong - nine in Laos and two in Cambodia - with a combined capacity of 13,600MW.

While some environmentalists recognize the energy needs of the region and the benefits of avoiding fossil fuels in generating power, they argue that these needs could be satisfied with a larger number of smaller dams on the Mekong tributaries that could be less damaging.

International Rivers, a US-based environmental group, says that the project would harm migratory fish species that are key to the livelihoods of millions of riparian residents.

Some 70 per cent of the protein eaten by the 60m inhabitants of the Mekong basin comes from fish, and the MRC says that 70 per cent of the annual Mekong catch of some 2.5m tonnes is migratory.

The commission estimates that the six Laotian dams planned for north of the capital Vientiane alone would cut the catch by 6 per cent, a significant loss in a region where food demand is forecast to increase by 50 per cent by 2040.