Laos to Continue to Develop Divisive Mekong Dam

Laos will go ahead with construction of the controversial Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River despite agreeing to allow the Mekong River Commission Council to review the dam, the commission said on June 26.

The decision by the Laotians to submit the plan to the council, which theoretically has jurisdiction over approval, was a relatively minor victory for environmentalists, since Laos is determined to continue construction.

Earlier in the week, lawyers acting for villagers downstream from a second controversial dam, the Xayaburi in southern Laos, won approval from the Thai Supreme Administrative Court to take on a lawsuit against the dam’s power purchase agreement with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and other Thai government agencies.

Ame Trandem, a spokeswoman for the US-based International Rivers, called the administrative court’s decision “a clear indication of the adverse transboundary impact that the Xayaburi Dam is likely to have on the Mekong River’s ecosystem and people, despite earlier claims made by the Lao government that the project would be sustainable. “

Both dams represent a bid by the Laotian government to turn the country’s natural resources into money through the sale of power to Thailand, possibly China and the rest of Southeast Asia. But the countries downstream from the two dams fear that the dams will play havoc with one of the world’s greatest rivers, inflicting damage on its fishery, which supplies fish to 60 million people in the Mekong River Basin. The dams are also expected to cut the flow of vital sediment carried by the river into rice-growing areas in Vietnam and Cambodia.

“Laos has finally stepped up to their responsibility under the 1995 Mekong Agreement and international law by submitting the Don Sahong Dam for prior consultation,” Trandem said in a prepared news release. “ However, we note with great concern that it appears Laos intends to continue to develop the dam as planned, rather than use the prior consultation process as an opportunity for neighboring countries to have a voice in whether or not the project is built.”

International Rivers called on the Laotian government to stop all construction at the Don Sahong site to allow for a true assessment of the dam’s impact on the environment, a request that is likely to be ignored completely. That is because Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries. It was wracked by incessant bombing and the dropping of tens of millions of antipersonnel mines by the Americans during the Vietnam War. It ranks 135th in the world for gross domestic product by the CIA’s World Factbook. Nearly 41 percent of the population are under the age of 14. It is one of the few remaining one-party Communist countries left on the planet. Subsistence agriculture accounts for as much as 30 percent of gross domestic product, according to the CIA Factbook, and provides 80 percent of total employment.

Thus the need for revenue is likely to cause Laotian authorities to continue to push for construction of Xayaburi and Don Sahong despite any downstream concerns over the environment. They have already built 10 dams across the country, generating 669 megawatts of power. Another eight were expected to be operational by the end of 2013, generating an additional 2,531 megawatts. Nineteen more are planned and 42 more are the subject of feasibility studies, almost all of them financed and developed by foreign interests expecting to turn a profit from electricity generation.

Thailand is to import up to 7,000 megawatts by 2015. Vietnam will take another 3,000 megawatts by 2015 possibly rising to 5,000 megawatts by 2020 in accordance with an understanding reached in December 2006, according to a 2010 study titled Development in LAO PDR: the Food Security Paradox, produced for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and written by researcher David Fullbrook.

“More time is needed for the Mekong River Council study and the Mekong Delta study to be completed,” International Rivers said. “A precautionary approach is imperative and construction on the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams should be suspended. Laos must continue to build on today’s step forward, by heeding the calls from Vietnam and Cambodia, along with the recommendations of the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, to defer all dam building on the Mekong mainstream for a period of 10-years.”

That clearly is not going to happen.