This Dam Battery Will Power Southeast Asia, but at What Cost?

Laos shrugs off protests that contentious Mekong River Dam could impact millions, wreck ecosystems.

Farmers gather to sell their produce at the floating market in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. (Photo: Rachel Nuwer)

Rachel is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times and Smithsonian.

On January 17, environmental ministers from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand gathered in the sleepy riverside town of Luang Prabang to discuss the future of their most precious natural resource, the Mekong River. The river—the second most biodiverse on the planet—supports the world’s largest inland fishery and is the lifeline of millions in the region. The Xayaburi dam, a controversial project that Laos officially began building in a groundbreaking ceremony last November, threatens that bounty, however, and is causing ripples in the region.

“This is the first mainstream dam constructed on the Mekong River, and the process hasn’t gone very well—everyone recognizes that,” said Winston Bowman, the regional environment director at USAID in Bangkok, to TakePart. Bowman, along with development partners from Australia, the European Union, the World Bank and others, outlined their concerns in a statement at the 19th Mekong River Commission Council Meeting. “From my perspective, I feel like the development partners are doing our job when we observe questionable practices and raise them at the meeting, then go a step further by making recommendations in how to move forward.”

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At the forefront of those concerns is the lack of consensus amongst neighboring countries about the dam.

For Laos, it’s “very much about politics and private interest,” said Ame Trandem to TakePart. She is Southeast Asia program director for the nonprofit environmental and human rights group International Rivers.

Vietnam and Cambodia, which are situated downstream from Xayaburi, stand to shoulder the biggest impacts. Reduced sediment and nutrient flows may adversely affect crops in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam’s “rice basket,” and lower fish yields may threaten the food security of millions of Cambodians, who rely on fish for 70 percent their protein intake. “One country’s interests are going ahead of the region’s interests,” said Trandem.

All four countries are bound under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires prior consultation and agreement before the river is altered in ways that could impact other member countries. 

Since Laos first proposed the dam in April 2011, Vietnam and Cambodia have expressed reservations. In December of that year, Vietnam called for a moratorium on all dam building so thorough environmental impact assessments could be conducted, and at that meeting the four countries agree to wait until further study results were available before making a decision on whether or not to build the dam. 

Yet Laos proceeded with construction. “Unfortunately, it looks like the train has left the station,” Bowman said. “Lao believes they’re in compliance with the Mekong river agreement—that’s another issue.

Laos insists that the dam—a $3.7 billion project that would produce about 1,260 megawatts of power—would bring much-needed revenue to the impoverished country, making it “the battery of Southeast Asia.”

But the dam threatens to displace untold numbers of Lao citizens—who were not consulted or sometimes even informed of Xayaburi’s construction.

In addition, the dam would potentially drive migratory threatened species like the Mekong giant catfish into extinction and disrupt the ecology of the entire river basin.

Experts say no technologies currently exist that could mitigate fisheries or sediment impacts for such a large project, and Laos does not seem to support further discussion about potential environmental impacts. Indeed, this year doors were closed to the World Wildlife Fund, a non-governmental conservation organizations that has attended the annual meetings since 2001. “We were notified a week or so before the meeting that WWF had not been invited by the host, the Lao government,” Bowman said. “We were told there were space limitations, which is hard to believe.”

The development partners were not the only ones to speak out against the dam at the meeting. Nguyen Thai Lai, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, again made a stand for delaying construction, insisting that any further development on the Mekong River should be postponed pending the outcome of comprehensive studies. “While we are still trying to do the research to understand its impacts,” Nguyen said in his opening statement, “each riparian country should show their responsibility by assuring that any future development and management of water resources proposed in the basin should be considered with due care and full precaution based on best scientific understanding of the potential impacts.”

But at this point, Bowman and Trandem think, the best that Vietnam and Cambodia might hope for is a push to quickly gather baseline data, including existing fisheries numbers and species, nutrient values and water flow trends. Such data are largely lacking in the region, meaning that it will be harder to quantify potential impacts the dam brings in the future. “I think Lao’s position is, as impacts are identified, then they will take action to mitigate them, which is not our preference,” Bowman said.

Who may take responsibility for those impacts—and for compensating them—remains an unknown. While Laos would seem the most obvious candidate, it’s actually Thailand who is sponsoring the project’s construction and buying around 95 percent of the future electricity the dam produces for the next 30 years. Thailand’s involvement with the dam remains contentious among its citizens, however.

In August 2012, Thai villagers filed a lawsuit against five Thai government bodies for signing the agreement to purchase the electricity without considering the project’s impacts on their livelihoods. “Thailand has been very silent within this process, but by staying quiet they’re actually siding with Laos,” Trandem said. “They’re trying to avoid taking any position but at the same time doing everything to advance the project.”

Plans do not stop with Xayaburi.

The countries are considering a cascade of at least 10 other dams on the Mekong River. If those further projects proceed, the cumulative impacts could be immense—especially if mitigation strategies are not identified and put in place first. “This dam is setting a very bad precedent,” Trandem said. “If other dams follow this same case, this could mean future disaster for the region.”

At this point, however, there’s no indication that the decision-making process surrounding future dams will differ significantly from Xayaburi. “But hope springs eternal,” Bowman said. “And we’re being very persistent.”  

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