Mekong River On The Sacrificial Altar Of Development

When we finally arrived at our destination I had a good spot for shots and a disturbing story to hear. In Muang sub-district, Nong Khai Province we stopped at one of the villages lying between the borders of the main road and the coastline of the river. Locals have built their lives around and in connection with the river, a relation that is threatened due to plans of construction of 11 dams only on the lower stream.

In the landlocked provinces of Thailand the seasons are three: hot, cool and wet. The later starts in May and lasts till November with southwest monsoons and high temperatures. During this period the rainfalls look more like a short furious chimera and less than a continuous downpour.

Fortunately the day we decided to move from Nong Khai the clouds were low but the rain was gentle, a pleasant drizzle rest from the heat. The bus drove west all the way parallel to Mekong River that stands as a physical border between Thailand and Laos. During the whole trip I kept staring from the window, the driver was speeding and I could not catch a good shot from the backseat. Small and low villages appeared one after the other like wild greens on the sideway.

Xayaburi Dam paves the way

The first of the proposed projects, the 810 meter Xayaburi hydropower dam has started being built in a mountainous valley of Northern Laos where 2,100 people forcibly resettled to inaugurate the construction. Locals explained that although the dam is located almost 400 km away from their community, it is already affecting their lives and is expected to do even more when completed.

Their income depends on fishing, farming and extraction of small quantities of gold when the water level is low. Prior to the construction of the dam the river would go up and down according to the seasons, they said. Now fluctuation of water changes without being able to predict floods or droughts. More they are worried since the dam disrupts fish migration and spawning and pushes endangered fish species, such as the Mekong Giant Catfish, to extinction. It also blocks the flow of sediments and nutrients, affecting agriculture all along the river.

Local women extracting gold in Mekong River, Nong Khain Thailand

Concerns raised by this small community are not exceptional. Millions of people rely on Mekong’s generosity for their surviving. Stretching and crossing across four national boundaries of the Southeast Asia, it is one of the longest waterways in the world. It starts from the Tibetan Plateau it only ends up in the Pacific Ocean after crossing China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. 60 million people are settled along the way since the river is one of the most biodiverse systems in the world while hosting the world’s most productive freshwater fishery.

Fisherman in Mekong River, Nong Khai Province, Thailand 

Who decides?

In accordance with the 1995 Mekong Agreement, decisions about projects related to Mekong are overseen by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Funded by international development agencies and by the four member countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos—the Commission  has adopted a protocol that requires them to notify, consult, and then reach agreement with their neighbours on any proposed projects.

In 2010, the Xayaburi became the first out of 11 forthcoming Dams to ever initiate the process. The announcement lead to the release of a major Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) report, which recommended that decision-making on mainstream dams, including Xayaburi, should be deferred for 10 years due to the unpredicted risks and impacts associated with the projects.

Despite the requests, Laos and Thailand refused to take into consideration the dam’s social and environmental impacts before beginning construction. “At this point this case is not reversible; it is already complete almost 60%” a Thai lawyer who prefers to remain unknown told me when we met in Chiang Mai.

A year ago though the Administrative Court of Thailand accepted the lawsuit filed by Mekong communities against the Xayaburi Dam’s power agreement in an unprecedented positive step which marked the Court’s recognition of the potential transboundary impacts on livelihoods of Thai communities.. “Fighting this case might make the next dam to be built in a more comprehensible way”, he adds.

The battery of ASEAN?

To this day the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam is still under construction. The project is expected to generate 1,260 megawatts of electricity, around 95% of which will be exported to Thailand. The recent economic and population boom of the Southeast Asian region calls for greater energy production. An analysis by the International Energy Agency in 2013 predicted that the region will need 80% more energy supplies in the following 20 years. At the same time though, Thailand has no need of electricity from Xayaburi dam since it has already covered its future energy needs. “Thailand wants to become the battery of ASEAN and grow its energy exports” as the lawyer explains.

The National Energy Policy Council approved on May 15, 2015 the new Power Development Plan (PDP 2015) that proposes to double the installed energy capacity of the country over the next 20 years. To achieve so Thai government is investing on renewable sources such as the hydropower dams built across borders.

The reason for this is clear and well thought. “Thai government faced a lot of protests and resistance from their own people. In the past they built many power plants and locals opposed them so they came up with the very creative strategy of moving these projects to neighbouring countries where the legal standards and the opposition is lower.” Only Laos is going to host 9 of the forthcoming dams while Thai communities are still struggling to recover from the first one.

This article would not be possible without the support of Minority Rights Group International.

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