Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pressure mounts to delay "dangerous" $3.5 billion Mekong dam

Reuters: Plans for the first dam across the lower Mekong River are putting Laos on a collision course with its neighbors and environmentalists who fear livelihoods, fish species and farmland could be destroyed, potentially sparking a food crisis. The impoverished, Communist nation seems determined to defy international pressure and forge ahead with construction of the $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam, a mostly Thai-led project that experts say could cause untold environmental damage.

The four countries that share the lower stretches of the 4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong -- Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia -- failed at a meeting on Tuesday to reach an agreement on construction of the 1.285-megawatt (MW) dam, the first of 11 planned in the lower Mekong that are expected to generate 8 percent of Southeast Asia's power by 2025.

In a joint statement, they said there was "still a difference in views" and the issue should be handled at ministerial level. Mekong basin countries are bound by a treaty to hold inter-governmental consultations before building dams, but none has veto powers and Laos will have the final say, although not without considerable diplomatic pressure.

Ecologists and rivers experts say an environmental impact assessment conducted last year by the Lao government was patchy at best. They warn that the livelihoods of 60 million people in the lower Mekong region are at risk if the Xayaburi dam goes ahead without proper risk assessment.

Activists say scores of fish species face extinction, fish stocks will dwindle as migratory routes will be blocked, and swathes of rice-rich land could be deprived of fertile silt carried downstream by Southeast Asia's longest waterway. Entire villages would be forced to relocate.

According to a study by the Mekong River Commission, an inter-government agency, the proposed 11 dams would turn 55 percent of the river into reservoirs, resulting in estimated agriculture losses of more than $500 million a year and cutting the average protein intake of Thai and Lao people by 30 percent…

A narrow stretch of the Mekong in Laos, shot by Feral Arts, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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