Dam Bad: Laos' Plans to Dam the Mekong Could Open the Floodgates to Further Dams on the River

Article excerpt

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SATHIAN MEGBOON IS a DJ for 94.5 FM, a radio station in northeast Thailand. It's a fun gig, he says, because the station broadcasts across the Mekong River to Vientiane, the tiny capital of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, which gives him the chance to take requests from listeners in two countries. Last year, listeners started calling more than usual, but not to ask for the folk songs Sathian likes to play. They wanted to know what he thought of reports that a Thai company was planning to build a $3.5 billion dam a few hundred kilometers upstream on the Lao-Thai border in a remote and impoverished mountain area.

Sathian's Vientiane listeners may have read about the proposed Xayaburi dam in The Vientiane Times, a mouthpiece for the secretive Lao Communist Party. But they wanted the real story: Namely, how would a hydropower dam in Xayaburi Province affect them?

The DJ said he wasn't sure, because he isn't a politician or hydropower expert. But building dams on the Mekong--the world's tenth-longest river--seemed to him a terrible idea. China, which borders northern Laos, built four hydroelectric dams on the upper Mekong between 1986 and 2009. Sathian and his neighbors say those dams have changed the Mekong's "flood pulse," the seasonal ebb and flow that regulates agriculture and fishing and feeds the Lower Mekong Basin's 60 million residents. According to elder farmers who grew up beside the Mekong, erratic flow patterns that appeared in the 1990s have made it harder to grow staple crops such as chili peppers, eggplants, and corn. They say they cannot imagine how additional dams would improve the situation.

Sathian and his neighbors claim that, in 2007, Chinese dams triggered violent flooding. "It happened very fast, and we didn't have any warning," Sathian, who is 63 and generously tattooed, told me on a lethargic mid-April afternoon. "It wasn't raining, but the fiver flooded for seven days! If they build a new dam in Xayaburi, I'm afraid the next flood could be like a tsunami."

We were standing on the banks of the Mekong under a white banner that said NO MEKONG DAMS in English. Looking across the river, I saw monks in orange robes bathing against the backdrop of Vientiane's unassuming skyline. Fishing skiffs were gliding downstream, and the air felt sticky and stagnant. It was hard to imagine that a planned hydropower dam hundreds of miles upstream, in the mountains of landlocked Laos, had caused such fear. But a few weeks earlier, 263 nongovernmental organizations from 51 countries had written to the Lao prime minister and urged him to cancel the project. Apparently Xayaburi was kind of a big deal.

Hydropower dams are common in Southeast Asia and have already been constructed on some of Mekong's tributaries. But the 1,280-megawatt Xayaburi dam, which Laos proposed last September, would be the first of 11 dams planned for the river's mainstream. Nine would be sited in Laos, the other two in Cambodia. Along with a proposed "river diversion" project in Laos, the dams could supply about 65 terawatt hours of electricity per year--up to 8 percent of the Mekong region's projected 2025 electricity demand and slightly less energy than Americans use each year to power their televisions. About 90 percent of the power would go to Vietnam and Thailand.

Environmental activists and civil society groups across Southeast Asia say that if the Xayaburi dam is built, it will lay the political groundwork for the other dams, which they fear would have devastating cumulative impacts on ecosystems and livelihoods. They also worry that hydropower developers are ignoring climate change, which, according to scientists, will affect Mekong hydrology this century. The activists have rallied behind a 2010 study by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) that recommended a ten-year moratorium on new Mekong dams because the dams, if built, would provoke "permanent and irreversible" social and environmental consequences. …