Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reassessment call doesn't halt Mekong dam project

From Vancouver Sun: Reassessment call doesn't halt Mekong dam project
The enthusiasm of Thailand’s largest construction company, Ch. Karnchang, to build the massive Xayaburi hydroelectric dam in neighbouring Laos does not appear to have been dimmed by the decision of the four governments monitoring development on the Mekong River to halt the project pending further study.

The American-based environmentalist group International Rivers said last week it has evidence the company is continuing with preliminary construction projects.

The continuing work appears to be on access roads and other facilities for the project which is scheduled to take eight years to complete.

Thailand can therefore argue that they do not involve the dam itself and thus jeopardize the findings of the new impact study to be undertaken by Japan and other international development partners.

Continuation of the construction is in apparent defiance of the decision in December of environment and water resources ministers from the governments involved in the Mekong River Commission – Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand – that the $3.5-billion scheme should be halted while a more complete assessment is made of its impact.

The agreement followed months of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the project.

The Laotian government initially produced a report which said the adverse impact of the Xayaburi dam would be negligible while its positive impact on the country’s economy and lives of its people would be great.

However, a 2010 report by the MRC warned that dozens of fish species could become extinct, fish stocks would dwindle and decreased water flows would affect agricultural production around the river’s network.

The MRC recommended that all dam projects on the Lower Mekong be halted for 10 years while further studies are made.

At a meeting in April last year the MRC ministers failed to reach an agreement, but backed the compromise proposal in December.

If and when the Xayaburi Dam comes into operation it will be 810 metres wide, 32 metres high and generate 1,280 megawatts of power, 95 per cent of which is already earmarked to be bought by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).

The MRC members have a protocol requiring them to notify, consult and then reach agreement with other member countries before projects on the Mekong’s mainstream are undertaken.

But Thailand is indicating it regards this protocol as a guideline rather than a requirement.

A letter dated Jan. 30 from the Thai Minister of Energy, Arak Cholthanon, to the parliament’s Senate committee on corruption investigation and good governance promotion says that “the ministry of natural resources confirms that the prior consultation process has been completed.”

The lower Mekong River and its main tributaries provide the livelihood for at least 60 million people. There are allegations that hydro-power dams already built on the upper reaches of the Mekong by China, which is not a member of the river commission, as well as the blasting of rapids to facilitate navigation, have adversely affected water flows.

These developments are also said to have disturbed the migration of fish in what is the world’s largest and most important fresh water fishery.

The Xayaburi Dam project has sparked intense debate and argument among the four river commission members because its approval will set a precedent for further hydro-power developments on the lower Mekong.

Vietnam and Cambodia in particular fear that the 10 other hydro dam schemes on the drawing board for the lower Mekong will adversely affect the water flows on which substantial portions of their economies depend.

About 80 per cent of the protein in the diet of Cambodians comes from fish caught in the Mekong’s great lake, the Tonle Sap.

This lake also acts as a reservoir which ensures a steady flow of water in the dry season, and thus multiple rice crops, in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region.

Laos, on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

The Vientiane government sees hydro dam developments on its many rivers as one of its few available resources and has said it plans to become “the battery of Southeast Asia.”

Laos’ plans have attracted foreign investors. Ten dams are already operating and producing 670 megawatts of electricity.

By the end of this year another eight hydroelectric schemes are due to come on line, producing an additional 2,500 megawatts.

A further 19 schemes are at the planning stage and 42 more are the subject of basic feasibility studies.

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