Dams of destruction threaten Mekong

Kirk Herbertson
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Originally published in The Bangkok Post

This week a decision will be made in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that could shape the future of the mighty Mekong River and fundamentally alter the lives of 60 million people.

The Mekong River at the site of the planned Xayaburi hydropower project in Laos. Experts say the dam will wreak havoc on the ecology of the entire Lower Mekong region.

The governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam will meet tomorrow and Thursday near the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, to discuss the controversial Xayaburi Dam in Laos, which threatens to become the first dam on the Lower Mekong River. Under a 1995 treaty, the four governments must reach a consensus before any project can be built on the Lower Mekong.

If Xayaburi is approved, it could open the floodgates for 10 more dams to be built on the river. If all the projects are built, an estimated 55% of the Lower Mekong would be turned into a stagnant reservoir. The world's largest inland fishery would be decimated by giant walls that prevent millions of fish from migrating to their breeding grounds. Farmers would lose access to the nutrients that the river carries down from its upper reaches, and millions of people would lose access to the fish that are an essential source of protein in their diets.

Politicians are scrambling to make sense of this dilemma. All major geopolitical decisions have complicated tradeoffs. But with the Xayaburi Dam, there is simply not enough information about what the region's governments could be trading away.

Evidence so far points to the dam being a bad idea of historic proportions. Because the impact would be irreversible, numerous scientists have urged the governments to conduct more studies before making a decision.

In the past year, two authoritative scientific investigations urged caution and recommended further studies, but were quickly swept aside by politicians.

In 2010, a strategic environmental assessment was completed for the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the inter-governmental organisation that manages the shared river. The report concluded that the 11 proposed dams on the Mekong River would likely cause "serious and irreversible environmental damage" in all four countries, and recommended a 10-year deferment while further scientific studies were conducted.

The MRC, however, pushed this study aside. Instead of endorsing the report, its website explained that the assessment is "not an official MRC approved document".

Economists are also questioning whether the Mekong dams will really bring about the growth that proponents claim.

In a 2011 study funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) , Portland State University questioned the assumptions that regional policymakers used to calculate the costs and benefits of the Mekong dams. The study concludes that the costs could significantly outweigh the benefits (with a net negative cost of US$274 billion in one scenario).

Many proponents of the Mekong dams, it seems, did not consider the massive economic benefits generated by the river's fisheries and ecosystems.

Meanwhile, Laos has distributed a quasi-scientific study to woo the other governments into agreement. In May, Laos hired Swiss company Poyry Energy to determine whether the Xayaburi Dam complies with the governments' agreed criteria for Mekong dams.

The Poyry report recommends that the dam should be built, despite identifying over 40 major scientific and technical studies that still need to be completed.

The report falsely claims that any negative impact from the dam can be fixed after construction begins -- an approach that is out of step with all respected international practice.

This puts politicians in an awkward position. The legitimate concerns of the strategic environmental assessment and the USAID-funded study have been buried.

Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam (along with donor governments) instead find themselves forced to spend time reviewing the Poyry report that has already been widely dismissed as greenwash.

Vietnam and Cambodia have raised concerns about the Xayaburi Dam's trans-boundary impact. While Thailand has also expressed concern with the project, it is negotiating a deal to purchase 95% of the electricity generated. No consensus has been reached.

Laos has capitalised on all of this indecisiveness, constructing roads and work camps in the remote area where it wants to build the Xayaburi Dam, and announcing plans to begin blocking the river by the end of the year.

The official Xayaburi website boldly claims that Laos has a right to move forward with the project, and that the project would not have any negative environmental impact.

The Siem Reap meeting this week is not only a test for the Xayaburi Dam, but a test for regional cooperation around the shared Mekong River.

The right thing for governments to do is to take a precautionary approach and cancel the dam _ or at least commit to a 10-year postponement on construction of dams along the Lower Mekong region, so that further scientific studies can be conducted.

In either case, Laos will need to stop construction on the Xayaburi Dam and cooperate in good faith.

Thailand will need to cancel plans to purchase electricity from the dam.

Donors, such as the United States, European and Australian governments, could offer to fund the necessary scientific studies, support a revision of the regional decision-making process, and urge Laos to explore more reasonable development alternatives to Mekong dams.

This will take some uncomfortable conversations with Laos and Thailand. The next few days will see some awkward diplomatic moments, but the time has come for governments to take a bold stance against the reckless damming of the Mekong River.