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Push to Build Dams Sparks New Warnings Over Mekong River's Future

View of a hydropower dam
View of a hydropower dam

Governments along the Mekong River are nearing a decision on plans to build a hydropower dam in Laos. Environmentalists fear that a planned series of dams will damage the environment, and the livelihoods of the people living along the Mekong.

In northern Laos, the government plans to build the Xayaburi hydropower dam, capable of generating 1,260 megawatts of electricity – on the main stream of the lower Mekong River.

It is the first of 12 dams planned for the Mekong. The Southeast Asian governments involved say the dams will be a clean source of energy for a rapidly developing region and will help cut poverty.

The $3.5 billion Xayaburi project is being built in cooperation with Thailand, which will buy almost all of the electricity it generates.

It is the first project requiring approval by the four governments along the lower Mekong – Laos, Thailand Cambodia and Vietnam – under a consultative process overseen by the Mekong River Commission.

The governments could present their decision later this month.

Under a 1995 agreement the four countries are to cooperate to ensure sustainable development along the 4,900-kilometer Mekong system.

Environmentalists say the consultations have not been transparent and that plans for the dams have not had adequate local debate or study.

Ame Trandem is with the environmental group International Rivers. She says the governments have not reached a point where they can make informed decisions.

"This is why it recommended deferring the decisions for the next 10 years,” Trandem said. “And we feel the Xayaburi consultation process right now should be halted in order to allow that 10 year deferment so people can understand the Mekong River better."

The Mekong River Commission, which is funded by countries that include Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and the United States, recommends that the Xayaburi project be deferred. The commission says more work is needed to assess the effect of having 12 hydropower dams.

But the Lao government says it sees no reason for delay, and that the government has met all legal, environmental and social requirements.

Climatologist Anond Snidvongs at Thailand’s Chulalongorn University says while dams regulate water flows, they can harm biodiversity and the economy.

"It’s very clear and very well proven. Fish in the Mekong, they are both food and also economics,” Trandem said. “About one-third of the economy of Cambodia at the moment relies on the exporting those fish to other countries, especially Thailand."

Environmentalists such as International River’s Trandem say millions of people will be affected.

"When we look into the future if these dams are built the future is going to be very grim,” Trandem added. “People will be poor because they have lost their main source of income - fisheries - people will also not have enough food to eat. This is a huge worry."

Environmentalists are pressing the four Mekong governments to stall the Xayaburi program to further assess the long-term implications for both the Mekong River and its people.