It is estimated that some 60 million people depend on the 4,900-km-long Mekong River and its tributaries for their lives and livelihoods — food, water and transportation. It is the world’s largest inland fishery; an estimated 1,000 species of fish live in the Mekong, making it the second-most biodiverse river in the world behind the Amazon. Its waters irrigate farmland as well as provide the lifelines for trade and communication.
No wonder, then, that Laotian plans to construct a hydropower dam on the Mekong have alarmed governments and conservationists around the world. There are fears that the $3.7 billion Xayaburi Dam could alter the entire Mekong River system, altering and upsetting the environmental and economic balance in the region.
Last month, the four nations of the Mekong River Commission — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — decided once again to postpone decision on the dam’s construction, opting instead to further study the environmental impact of the project. Japan and other international development partners will lead the project.
Laos, a landlocked country of 6 million people and one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, planned to build a series of as many as 55 dams across the Mekong and become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by selling the excess power generated by those hydropower facilities to neighboring countries.
By one estimate, by 2020, Laos would generate 15 times the power that it is expected to consume for its own needs. Thailand is expected to be one of the chief beneficiaries of the scheme. Last year the Bangkok government announced that it would purchase 95 percent of the power generated the Xayaburi Dam.
A 1995 agreement among the four Mekong River countries requires approval by the commission before construction of any hydropower plants on the river. At a meeting last April, the group deferred a decision when Vietnam would not agree to proceed, a position that was buttressed by complaints by nongovernmental organizations and activist groups which argued that communities along the river would be uprooted and destroyed.
Vietnam had argued for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams on the river. Instead, an environmental study was commissioned by the Laotian government. It concluded that Laos had addressed the ecological concerns but that more data was need on other issues such as fish migration and the livelihoods of people who live on or near the river.
The idea of approving the project while conceding that more information was needed — at least 40 major scientific and technical studies still had to be done — drew scorn and disapproval from many observers. The fact that work related to the dam project, such as the construction of roads, had begun led many to believe that the November commission meeting was a mere formality.
Instead, the group agreed to yet another environmental assessment. That is the wise course. The dam will have a profound impact on the Mekong River and its inhabitants. More work must be done to ensure that it does not negatively affect fish migration. Forty to 70 percent of the fish that inhabitants rely on are migratory. In total, about 0.5 million tons of fish are harvested annually in the basin with a total value of $6.5 billion.
A second concern is damage to the farming communities downstream that rely on the river to provide nutrients. There are very real fears that a significant slowing of the Mekong flow would allow saltwater to move upstream and damage or destroy the river delta, Vietnam’s rice bowl. One study concluded that the total cost of the dam project — including the amount required to make up for the negative impacts — could reach as high as $274 billion.
Japan will be leading the new environmental impact study. Plainly, it is a weighty responsibility but one the country is well suited to undertake. The relevant organizations must ensure that their research is solid and that their conclusions are honest. They have to explore and balance the economic potential of the project along with its environmental costs.
Japan should also be ready to help Laos mitigate the impact of its ultimate conclusion — either facilitating development if the environmental costs prove to be too high to proceed or minimizing the ecological damage if approval is given. In short, Japan has to be ready to help with the sustainable development of Laos and the entire Mekong River.
Unfortunately, Laos’ dams are not the only potential blight on the Mekong’s future. China has already built three dams on the upper reaches of the river and several more are in the works; a total of 22 are planned. While the four Mekong River Commission countries are impacted by those projects, China, along with Myanmar, has refused to join the commission.
Laos’ decision to forgo its plans and work with all the impacted nations demonstrates true good neighborliness and respect. This is the spirit that should guide decision making when it comes to projects with such potentially massive impact.
Laos should be applauded for its wisdom and all concerned governments and institutions should be prepared to assist it as it tries to develop a sustainable future.
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