Laos dam opens floodgates for more concerns
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Laos dam opens floodgates for more concerns

The Mekong River runs from the Tibetan plateau through China, Burma/Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Agriculture and fishing industries as well as countless independent livelihoods depend on the Mekong for support, especially the poor population of the Lower Mekong Basin. It has a greater variety of very large fish than any other river, with an aquatic biodiversity second only to the Amazon River and a concentration of biodiversity per hectare that is second to none. According to the Mekong River Commission, it is the largest source of freshwater fish in the world.

The Mekong is a crucial means of shipping, trade and transportation, particularly in the lower region.

The current project to build a $3.5bn US dam on the Mekong in Laos has met with condemnation and disapproval from environmentalists and neighboring countries. Even the US has voiced its concern about the project, citing the potentially hazardous affects of the dam on farming, fishing and biodiversity downstream.

From the website of the campaign organization International Rivers:

China’s dam construction on the Upper Mekong has already caused downstream impacts, especially along the Thai-Lao border where communities have suffered declining fisheries and changing water levels that have seriously affected their livelihoods. By changing the river’s hydrology, blocking fish migration and affecting the river’s ecology, the construction of dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream will have repercussions throughout the entire basin.

China has constructed 3 hydropower dams on the upper Mekong with more planned. There are worries that 10 more dams could also be built by Laos and neighboring Cambodia.

Laos, one of Asia’s poorest countries, relies on hydropower and plans to sell most of the electricity generated with the dam to Thailand a step in its bid to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”. However, due the above environmental, economic and social concerns, hydro power might be “renewable” but it’s often far from sustainable.

On Wednesday the groundbreaking ceremony took place, though no actual construction on the river has begun. The governments of Cambodia and Vietnam, the later of which has close ties to Laos, both oppose the dam, as tens of millions of people in their countries could be adversely affected by the project. Thailand, eager for more electricity, tacitly supports the construction. But they should know that these projects can result in more harm than good.

From the Financial Times:

Despite rising demand in the region for electricity, particularly renewables, previous investments in hydropower have not always been successful. The Mun River dam in northern Thailand, on a Mekong tributary, went over-budget when it was built in the 1990s and caused widespread environmental damage for little benefit to investors.

Is economic growth from electricity generation worth damaging fish and irrigation supplies to those who depend on them, not just for money, but for their own nutrition?

For more on the story see this report on the BBC website and this opinion piece in The Nation (Thailand) by International Rivers advocates.

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Mekong River, northern Laos, pic: International Rivers