BANGKOK - The first in a new
series of 11 dams planned across the Mekong,
Southeast Asia's largest river, could break a
special bond between two communist-ruled
Critics in Vietnam are
concerned over a 1,260-megawatt hydropower project
planned by their smaller, poorer, land-locked
neighbor, Laos. They call it an environmental
Laos, however, wants to be the
powerhouse of the region - to sell power to its
neighbors and earn enough to help the poor that
are a third of its population of 5.8 million.
The dam in an idyllic hill setting in the
north Laos province of
Xayaburi (or Sayaboury), will
be built by a Thai developer. Thailand is expected
to buy 95% of its power to fuel its booming
economy. Environmentalists say the Xayaburi
dam and 10 more such constructions planned on the
Mekong's mainstream, nine in Laos, make a Faustian
The dam will "reduce fresh water
and silt downstream in Vietnam and devastate
fishing," stated 'Tuoi Tre', the country's largest
circulating paper, published by the Communist
Youth Organisation from Ho Chi Minh City (former
Saigon) in the south.
The potential threat
of the US$3.5 billion dam in the Mekong delta,
Vietnam's "biggest rice producing and fish farming
area", has also been highlighted by The Saigon
Vietnam's government officials have
raised their voice against the 32-meter-tall,
820-meter-wide dam. "If built, Laos' Xayaburi dam
will greatly affect Vietnam's agriculture
production and aquaculture," deputy minister of
natural resources and environment Nguyen Thai Lai
reportedly said in a meeting of the country's
Mekong River experts.
Such criticism goes
against the spirit of a 1977 treaty of friendship
and cooperation that binds them in a "special
"The criticism reflects the
concerns and the opinion of the public and the
government," said Nguy Thi Khanh, deputy director
of the Centre for Water Resources Conservation and
Development, an NGO based in the northern Vietnam
city of Hanoi.
Vietnamese scientists have
also said "the project should be stopped", Khanh
added during a telephone interview from the
Vietnamese capital. "Vietnam's silence about this
dam has been broken."
For its part, the
Laotian government is sticking to its plan. "We
are confident that the Xayaburi Hydroelectric
Power Project will not have any significant impact
on the Mekong mainstream," officials from
Vientiane (the capital of Laos) have explained in
a note to the Mekong River experts.
experts from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam
– the four countries that share the waters of the
lower Mekong - are meeting in late March to
approve the Xayaburi dam plans.
appealed to its neighbors not to place any blocks
to the project. The government does not want to
raise the political stakes to the point of being
compelled to get its dam blueprint approved by
ministers or even prime ministers.
will be no need for any extension of time and no
need to forward this matter to the [ministerial]
level," revealed the note by the Laotian
government to Mekong River experts.
dam issue has become the first major test of
environmental diplomacy for the four countries in
the lower Mekong, members of the Mekong River
Commission (MRC). An inter-governmental body that
came up after a 1995 agreement, the
Vientiane-based body aims to manage the
development of the Mekong basin in consensus. Any
plan to dam the Mekong has to be scrutinized for
its cross-border impact under a special mechanism,
formally known as the Procedure for Notification
Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA).
"This is the first time that we are going
through the prior consultation process," Jeremy
Bird, MRC's chief executive officer, told IPS.
"Countries do not have a veto right [to stop a dam
being built in a neighboring country] yet
countries cannot proceed without consultation."
The MRC's members have to weigh the
provision in the agreement that "a country cannot
act irresponsibly to impact its neighbor" against
every member's "right not to agree" and ability to
"take its own decision", said Rudi Veestraeten,
Belgium's envoy to Thailand. MRC is funded by
Belgium, along with other European countries,
Australia and Canada.
Till now the
4,880-km long Mekong has remained free of dams
along its journey through the basin, winding its
way past Myanmar along the four MRC partners till
it falls in the South China Sea in southern
But upstream, the river's flow
from its headwaters in the Tibetan plateau through
southern China has been harnessed by four dams in
China's Yunnan province, part of a cascade of
eight mega dams the Asian giant plans. Local
activists, environmentalists and even government
experts of the lower Mekong are alarmed.
The impact of the Chinese dams on the
downstream countries has strengthened campaigns
led by Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional
Alliance (TERRA), a Bangkok-based green lobby.
TERRA warns that dams on the lower Mekong will
affect the lives of 60 million people who depend
on food and their livelihood from the river.
"Laos has not helped its case because the
government has refused to make public the EIA
[environmental impact assessment] it has done for
the Xayaburi dam," Premrudee Daoroung, co-director
of TERRA, told IPS. "The Laotian government says
it is a secret document."