Laos: Development wins; human rights, environment lose
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Laos: Development wins; human rights, environment lose

Last November I posted about the controversial dam project on the Mekong River in Laos and how it could be catastrophic for the environment and the locals who depend on the river for their livelihoods.

Despite local concerns and international opposition from neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia (as well as the US) citing the ecological repercussions and resulting humanitarian crises the hydropower project could usher in, construction of the Xayaburi dam has gone ahead.

From China’s Global Times:

Construction of the dam started late last year and is now 10 percent complete, but it has been the source of concern for various environmental groups, NGOs, and governments. These groups have argued against the construction of the dam because of a perceived potential for a negative impact on the migratory paths for the Mekong’s many fish species and the impacts on sediment flows down the river which provide fertile soil for agriculture along the river.

The Lao government and the heads of the Xayaburi project argue in favor of the benefits the dam will bring. Laos, a poor country, sees hydropower as its cash cow. It will export electricity generated by the dam to neighboring Thailand. Project directors also claim that they have addressed many of the environmental and humanitarian concerns and that Vietnam and Cambodia no longer object to the dam’s construction.

(READ MORE: Little, landlocked Laos: Pawn or pivot in Asia’s future?)

However, a recent meeting of scientists in the Thai capital has affirmed that dams, including hydropower plants, are the largest threat to the fisheries of the Mekong, which support the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. Dams also intensify the negative effects of climate change on the Mekong. Read more on that from Voice of America.

Compared with most of its neighbors, Laos is poor and still undeveloped. This also means it has relatively large areas of unspoiled nature. As is the case in other countries (like Burma) largely Chinese investment into infrastructure and business projects is changing the landscape of Laos, literally and economically.

From China Dialogue (go to link for images):

In recent years, Chinese companies have poured billions of dollars into roads, dams and other infrastructure projects. The most notable is a US$7 billion, 400-kilometre high speed railway line, announced last year, that will run from the southern Chinese city of Kunming to the Laos capital of Vientiane and on to ports in Thailand. It is one of several projects aimed at improving access of Chinese goods to markets in Laos and beyond.

Speaking out against these projects can be dangerous, as environmental activists and NGO members have recently discovered.

(READ MORE: Will Laos bend to EU pressure on Sombath Somphone?)

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Mekong River, Laos, pic: 松岡明芳 (Wikimedia Commons)