Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 09:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 09:16 | SYDNEY

Damming the Mekong

30 March 2011 10:16

For the past six months, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has been seeking submissions about the proposal by Laos to build a dam on the Mekong at Xayaburi, a location some 150 kilometres downstream from Luang Prabang.

Projected to be over 800 metres wide and with a height of 32 metres, it would have a reservoir of 49 square kilometres. Estimates of how many people would be affected by the dam vary widely, but at the very least it appears 49 villages would require relocation.

Equally, the extent to which the projected dam would affect fish catches in the river is a matter for dispute. The overwhelming scientific opinion is that the dam would have a serious negative affect on catches, including the iconic giant catfish which has great symbolic importance to the local population.

Most importantly, it would if built, be the first dam on the mainstream of the Mekong below China.

Although the MRC has been able to play a role in calling for submissions on the project and drawing attention to those aspects of the 1995 Mekong River Agreement which call for consultation, it ultimately cannot direct the Lao Government not to build the dam. This is despite the fact that a Strategic Environmental Assessment commissioned by the MRC has called for all decisions on dams below China to be deferred for ten years, until further environment issues are resolved (see my post of 25 October and 6 December 2010).

If Laos decides that it is going to build the dam, the MRC cannot prevent it. Neither can Laos' ASEAN colleagues who make up the other members of the MRC: Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. At best, the only option they have open to them is moral suasion. This makes for an interesting situation, as the reactions of those three countries to the plans for the dam at Xayaburi have varied.

In the various consultations that have so far taken place, including most recently at a meeting held at Sihanoukville on 24-26 March, Vietnam has made clear its deep concern about a dam at Xayaburi and anywhere else on the Mekong below China. It is fearful of the effect dams will have on the functioning of agriculture in the Mekong delta, though whether this will translate into an official opposition to the dam is still not clear.

Thailand has indicated that it will not oppose a Lao decision to build the dam. Its position cannot be separated from the fact that a major Thai company, CH Kamchang, is the designated contractor to build the dam. So far, the Cambodian Government has not indicated what position it will adopt, with the vice-chairman of the Cambodian National Mekong Commission, Sin Niny, stating that Cambodia was not yet in a position to make a decision on the desirability of the Xayaburi dam.

This contrasts with Sin Niny's earlier vigorous opposition to another proposed dam in Laos at Don Sahong. It is difficult not to conclude that his present caution is related to the determination of the Cambodian government to build a dam of its own on the Mekong, at Sambor in Cambodia's northeast, with construction undertaken by a Chinese firm.

This is despite the fact that Sambor was long ago identified as the worst possible location for a dam in Cambodia, as it would prevent the migration of fish up and down the river. Fish that form upwards of 80 per cent of Cambodia's annual protein intake (see my Lowy Paper, The Mekong: River Under Threat).

The whole history of Laos' actions in relation to the proposed Xayaburi dam are a matter for concern. It appears to have left the notification of its intention to build the dam, to the last possible moment, while preliminary work around the dam site has already been undertaken.

The environmental impact assessment that was prepared by the contractor, was excessively limited in scope and offered the discredited argument that fish could pass over the dam by way of fish ladders. There is abundant evidence that fish ladders are not a viable answer for the Mekong, which has no salmonoid species and which have, in any event, proved useless when tried at Pak Mun dam in Thailand.

The great concern among those who are opposed to the dam's construction is that a decision by Laos to proceed, will act as a green light for the building of other dams in both Laos and Cambodia, not least because there is strong Chinese interest in this taking place and both are susceptible to Chinese blandishments.

We will now have to wait until 22 April when a further meeting will take place, at which final positions by the four MRC countries are to be made public. While it is still not possible to offer a firm prediction, there is a growing sense that Laos will indicated its intention to go ahead with the dam at Xayaburi.

A footnote: On 25 March China confirmed that it is proceeding with the construction of its fifth dam on the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) in Yunnan province at Nuozhadu. It has been presumed that work on this site has already been taking place for some time. The dam will be the biggest in terms of power generation, with a capacity of 5,850 MW.

Photo by Flickr user giggle1025.