BANGKOK - Impoverished Laos
is unlikely to cancel a Thai project to build a
mega-dam across the Mekong River at Xayaburi,
despite warnings from the International Union for
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that it could
devastate the region's rich biodiversity.
At least 1,780 known freshwater fish
species have been identified in the "Indo-Burma
biodiversity hotspot', which includes the Mekong
and parts of the Chao Phraya River that flows
through Thailand, revealed the 158-page report
released last week by the IUCN, ahead of its world
congress to be held in Jeju, South Korea from
IUCN, which is based in
Switzerland and is the world's oldest and
environmental network, assists societies
throughout the world to conserve the integrity and
biodiversity of nature and to ensure that the use
of natural resources is equitable and ecologically
"The Mekong ranks third
(after the Amazon and Congo) or second in the
world in terms of diversity of river fish,
depending on whether the verified species total or
the higher estimate is accepted," notes the IUCN
study, "The Status and Distribution of Freshwater
Biodiversity in Indo-Burma".
The study has
strengthened a growing anti-dam movement that has
united campaigners from several countries in the
region that are likely to be affected by the
1,260-megawatt hydropower project being built at a
cost US$3.8 billion.
"This is an
unprecedented scientific contribution for us to
know what is in the river between [the Laotian
cities of] Luang Prabang and Vientiane," Robert
Mather, head of IUCN Southeast Asia, told IPS. "It
shows how little we understand the river or the
impact of the planned dam."
will feed discussions about dams like the Xayaburi
at the IUCN gathering at Jeju, which is expected
to include more than 1,200 government and
non-government organisations (NGOs) from 160
"This study will help to shape
the real questions that need to be asked when
doing EIAs [environment impact assessments] before
building the dam," Mather said.
communities rallying against the Xayaburi dam this
month lodged a petition against the energy
ministry and the state-run Electricity Generating
Authority of Thailand (EGAT) in the country's
administrative courts, charging these bodies with
failure to inform the public about the
environmental and social impacts of the dam.
Even so, Norkun Sitthiphong, permanent
secretary in Thailand's energy ministry, announced
on August 24 that construction work for the
Xayaburi dam was on track and that electricity
production was scheduled to begin by 2019.
"The Xayaburi power plant plays a crucial
role in Thailand's power development," the Thai
official said, affirming the close link Thailand
has as a major investor of this dam, the first of
a cascade of 11 dams being planned to harness the
lower waters of Southeast Asia's largest river.
Earlier studies by the Mekong River
Commission (MRC), an inter-government agency,
estimate that the proposed dams could result in
agricultural losses worth more than $500 million
annually and reduce dietary fish intake of Thai
and Lao people by 30%.
It could also
result in the creation of reservoirs along the
Mekong, studies by the MRC, in which Cambodia,
Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are members and Myanmar
(or Burma) and China are dialogue partners.
The MRC is yet to clear construction for
the dam and announced in December that it would
approach international development partners to
study the dam's implications before doing so.
Activists believe that it is not too late
to stop the Xayaburi dam especially because of a
growing movement against it.
"This is the
first time local communities have gone to the Thai
courts to stop a cross-border hydropower project,"
said Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of Towards
Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, a
Bangkok-based green lobby.
turning to a clause in the Thai constitution that
requires government agencies to conduct public
hearings on projects like the Xayaburi dam, which
will impact Thai communities and Thailand's
biodiversity," she told IPS.
biggest concern is that the dam will devastate
fishing in the Mekong, which has been their main
livelihood for generations. Their campaign began
out of fear that the Xayaburi dam will affect the
annual fish migration in the Mekong."
of biodiversity is another concern. "The currency
for measuring fish biodiversity is species, not
kilograms, dollars or catch per unit of effort,"
the IUCN report said.
communities in Cambodia and Vietnam have expressed
similar concerns in their "Save the Mekong"
campaign. The Xayaburi dam could, they say,
threaten the livelihoods of some 60 million people
living in the lower Mekong, who harvest an
estimated $2.2 billion to $3.9 billion worth of
fish annually - or about a quarter of the world's
annual inland-water catch.
security, this campaign, which has been endorsed
by nearly 60,000 people, has also forged other
"The outcry has been strong because
of the centrality of the river to millions of
people, as well as to the region's history and
cultural identity," said Carl Middleton, a Mekong
River expert who lectures at the International
Development Studies Programme at Bangkok's
"Just as the
river is shared between the countries, so the
proposed Xayaburi dam has brought many people
together in opposition to the project," he told
IPS. "The size of the public response opposed to
the Xayaburi dam is unprecedented for a hydropower
project in the region."
The protests have
produced a mixed response from Laos, one of the
poorest of the six countries that shares the
Mekong, a 4,880 km-long river that flows through
southern China, touching Myanmar and Thailand, and
through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
has set its sights on becoming the battery to the
region by tapping its rivers through large
hydropower projects and selling the energy
generated to its neighbors, such as Thailand. The
foreign exchange, Vientiane argues, can help
one-third of the country's 5.8 million population
living in poverty.
Laos has assured
neighbors, Western donors and an intergovernmental
river development body that it would not proceed
with the controversial dam till the cross-border
environmental and social impacts have been
assessed. In July, Vientiane even announced
suspension of the project.
Plc (CK), one of Thailand's largest infrastructure
builders and owner of 50% of the shares of
Xayaburi Power, the controversial dam's developer,
In mid-August, CK's
chief executive, Plew Trivisvavet, confirmed that
the dam developer had not skipped a beat in its
construction plans. "We're still working on the
project, as no one has told us to stop," he told