Thailand Faces Flak for Backing Mekong Dams

Marwaan Macan-Markar
Thursday, July 29, 2010

[IPS] Northern Thai villagers living on Mekong River’s banks are poised to join a growing tide of opposition against a planned cascade of 11 dams to be built on the mainstream of South-east Asia’s largest body of water.

These communities, many of them from the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, are drafting a petition to be submitted in the coming weeks to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They see this step as the first in a long battle to protect a riverine culture and livelihood that has come down generations.

The target of the Thai villagers’ ire is the Sayaboury dam, to be built across a part of the Mekong that flows through neighbouring Laos. In opposing it, they are coming up against powerful Thai interests behind this dam project.

The 1,260-megawatt Sayaboury dam is the one in the most advanced planning stage among the 11 dams, followed by the 360-mw Don Sahong dam, which is also in Laos, where nine of the lower Mekong dams are to be built. Two other dams on the river’s mainstream are planned in Cambodia.

The backers of the Sayaboury dam include a Thai-based dam developer, four Thai commercial banks that are reported to have pledged funds for the dam and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), a state utility that signed an agreement in Laos in June to buy power once the new dam’s turbines come to life.

"The local communities are upset at the direct involvement of Thailand in a dam that could permanently damage their livelihood," said Pianporn Deetes, coordinator of Save the Mekong Coalition, a Bangkok-based network of environmentalist and grassroots activists. "Their fishing livelihood will be affected, because the dams across the Mekong’s mainstream will damage fish migration patterns for spawning."

The petition will challenge the Abhisit government to reveal its position on this dam and to explain if it consulted locals, Pianporn told IPS. "Local communities have no faith in fish ladders being built at the dam site to help fish migration. They know how such technology failed with the Pak Mun dam in Thailand."

For now, history is on the side of the villagers, since the mainstream of the lower Mekong, which is shared by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, has been free of massive hydropower barriers. The only dams that cut across the river – and have enraged the 60 million people in the lower Mekong – are three large ones in its upper reaches that flow through China.

Thus, the Sayaboury dam has emerged as a benchmark to gauge which of the competing interests will prevail in the still unresolved debate about the 11 mainstream dams and their impact on local communities and the environment.

Beyond these, activists say the dam will condemn to extinction a much-storied icon of the river – the Mekong giant catfish.

"The Mekong giant catfish is a critically endangered species that will not survive if it cannot migrate through the Sayaboury dam," said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in describing a "critical spawning area" close to the dam site near Chiang Rai and the Lao province of Bokeo.

"This area is one of the last places in the world where the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish is found spawning in the wild," the WWF added in a report it released this week, ‘River of Giants: Giant Fish of the Mekong’.

The last time a Mekong giant catfish was sighted was in May 2009, near a section of the river that flows through the northern Thai district of Chiang Khong, says Trang Dang, WWF’s Mekong River ecoregion coordinator, in describing a fish that tips the scale at 350 kilogrammes.

These fish, whose numbers have dwindled by up to 95 percent over the past century, journey upriver from the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia to spawning areas near Chiang Rai once the monsoons begin in May, covering distances of nearly 1,000 km at times.

The giant catfish is one of four large freshwater fish that inhabit the Mekong, the other three being the giant barb, the dog-eating catfish and the largest of them all, the giant freshwater stingray, which measures half the length of a bus and weighs 600 kg. "The world’s biggest freshwater fish and four out of the top 10 giant freshwater fish species can be found in the Mekong River," noted the WWF study. "More giants inhabit this mighty river than any other on earth."

But for now, the Thai villagers and environmentalists may be able to take heart from a comment by a Lao official. "We have studied so many planned dam construction projects, but there has been no decision to build any so far. The two dam projects in Sayaboury and southern Laos near the Cambodian border have been studied," Lao Minister of Energy and Mines Soulivong Daravong was quoted by media reports as saying in July.

But while the construction of the Sayaboury dam remains uncertain, what is clear is the growing role of the private sector in dam development, replacing institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank that used to lead such investments.

This shift presents new challenges to activists bent on protecting the Mekong River, which begins its 4,880-km journey from the Tibetan plateau, through southern China, and then Burma, before coursing into the Mekong basin, and emptying out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.

"When hydropower development becomes private sector led, where profit is the main motive, it leads to hydro chaos," said Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator of the U.S.-based environmental watchdog International Rivers. "Each developer is trying to develop their own project to generate the cheapest electricity."

"It is not an integrated approach, balancing the needs of Laos and addressing environmental and social concerns," he added.