Thai villagers hold banners opposing the building of a dam on the Mekong river during a rally outside a construction company in Bangkok, Thailand Tuesday. Pic: AP.

Serious concerns remain despite officials’ promise to hear input from locals and neighboring Mekong nations

Activists concerned with development along the Mekong River saw a small victory this week when the Supreme Administrative Court of Thailand agreed to take a case against Thai government agencies that purchased power from the Xayaburi dam in neighboring Laos. The Bangkok Post reported that the villagers who filed the complaints “accused the agencies of not complying with constitutional requirements before signing an agreement to purchase power from the Xayaburi dam.”

The villagers filed three orders with the court, according to the Bangkok Post: The first was to withdraw the cabinet resolution that allowed the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to purchase power from the Xayaburi Power Company; the second was to revoke the Power Purchase Agreement that was signed in 2011; and the third requested that the defendants “respect community rights and comply with the constitution by arranging transparent public hearings, as well as health and environmental impact assessments before signing power purchase.” The first two orders were dismissed, but the court supported the third.

Meanwhile, during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission Thursday Laos announced it will move ahead with plans on a second dam, the Don Sahong, despite concern over construction of that one as well. The Laos government will submit plans to the Mekong River Commission Council for review, but refused to halt construction, according to Asia Sentinel. Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’ vice chairman of Energy and Mines, said the country wants to cooperate with other Mekong nations and open its plans to them under a Prior Consultation process, according to the Bangkok Post.

Teerapong Pomun, director of the Living River Siam Association, which advises the Mekong River Commission, said the court’s decision will allow locals affected by the project to voice their concerns about the impact the dam will have on communities along the Mekong. Teerapong said the companies involved in the dam development need to educate local people and include them in discussions about how the dam will impact their livelihoods, and how to mitigate problems caused by the development. He said that environmental groups hope the Xayaburi court case can be used as a standard in the future, especially looking ahead to the ASEAN integration in 2015. Teerapong hopes Thailand will set a precedent for including locals in the research and planning process, and for mitigating negative construction impacts before building even begins.

The 1,285 mega-watt Kayaburi dam is being built in Xayaboury province in northern Laos. The Laos and Thai governments are cooperating on the project, with one of Thailand’s largest construction companies and several Thai banks (including the government-owned Krung Thai Bank) involved, according to International Rivers. The Kayaburi is one of 11 dams planned for the Mekong region and activists have expressed serious concerns about the detrimental impact these could have on the environment and local economies in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In its media kit on the Xayaburi dam, International Rivers states:

The costs of the Xayaburi Dam will be borne by the millions of people who live along the Mekong River, including in Laos and Thailand. Scientists expect that the dam will block critical fish migration routes
for between 23 to 100 species, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish. The dam would also destroy the river’s complex ecosystems that serve as important fish habitats. It would block the flow of sediments and nutrients, affecting agriculture as far downstream as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Lao government will resettle at least 2,100 people, and 202,000 people living near the dam site will be directly affected. Even in the early stages of construction, many of these people already face threats to their food security.”

On June 25, the Save the Mekong coalition issued a statement imploring regional leaders to “cancel the planned projects, including the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, and ensure that future decisions over the shared river are based on scientific knowledge, transboundary impact assessment, and respect for the rights of all riparian nations and the public to a transparent and participatory decision-making process.”

Teerapong said that for him and other activists, the best case scenario is that projects like the Xayaburi will be halted completely until local people have had a real chance to participate. Barring that, he hopes to see locals involved in finding solutions to problems the dams create, such as land erosion and decreased fish population.

Teerapong said Thai and other regional leaders must consider the long-term effects of the dams, such as food security and conflict among the Mekong nations.

“It’s not only [a concern] for Thai and Laos people,” he said. “If it happens, what is the mitigation to solve the conflict? They have to let local people in the Mekong countries join the committee to solve the problems.”

The Mekong is a major food and income source for people in the Mekong nations, and environmentalists have expressed grave concerns about changing water levels and damage to fish populations. Teerapong said soil erosion is already happening and that the water levels will make it harder for farmers to irrigate their fields, costing them more money to raise their crops. He added that people in affected communities who may end up losing land and resources need to be fairly compensated, and that consequence should be taken into account before the dams are even built.

At the commission meeting, Laos officials “admitted that the Don Sahong channel is a key migratory route in the dry season, but there are several other channels that support fish migration,” according to the Bangkok Post. Viraphonh also said Laos will improve the channels in the Khone Falls to aid fish migration and work closely with local officials to promote fishery management, conservation and sustainable fishing, and broaden economic opportunities for fishing families.”