Battle for the Mekong Heats Up
Image Credit: CPWF Basin Focal Project

Battle for the Mekong Heats Up


The Mekong, a precious jewel of Southeast Asia, has become a critical battleground between hydropower dam projects and the survival of the world’s greatest freshwater fisheries.

The future of this 4,880 km (3032 miles) long river may well be decided by what happens to the Xayaburi mega-dam project in Laos, the first of a cascade of 11 dam projects on the lower Mekong.

Ame Trandem from the NGO International Rivers explained that, “The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, feeding and employing millions of people. To move forward with the Xayaburi Dam would be reckless and irresponsible, as the dam would fatally impact the river’s ecosystem and fisheries.”

In spite of repeated reports that the Xayaburi dam project had been suspended pending further scientific studies, a recent visit to the dam-site has suggested that the Lao government has not bowed to international pressure. As a World Wildlife Fund analysis recently warned, “Construction work is marching ahead at the Xayaburi dam site in northern Laos and risks making a mockery of the decision last December by Mekong countries to delay building the dam on the Mekong mainstream.”

In December 2011 the four-member nations of the Mekong River Commission – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam –agreed that no dams should be built until further scientific studies of the negative impacts on all the riparian countries had been completed.

Scientists have warned that if the 11 dams are built it could bring on an ecological disaster that harms many of the 877 Mekong fish species. Furthermore, it is the uninhibited flow of the Mekong through the heart of Southeast Asia and the river’s bountiful natural resources that guarantees 65 million people’s food security.

Although Cambodia and Vietnam are determined to stop the dam, everything indicates that the Thai developer Ch. Karnchang and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) are equally determined to build it. In this context, a failure to resolve the dam issue could also trigger a major diplomatic row among the Mekong nations, undermining the credibility of the MRC and disrupting international cooperation along the region’s most important waterway.

“The Xayaburi Dam will trigger an ecological crisis of tremendous proportions. We urge the Prime Ministers of Laos and Thailand to show leadership by cancelling this project,” Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South, a member of the 263 coalition of NGOs from 51 nations said in a statement condemning the damn.

In response to this opposition, Lao Foreign Minister, Thongloun Sisoulithmade announced during last month’s ASEAN FM summit that his country was suspending work on the Xayaburi dam until further studies on its impact could be done. Although opponents of the dam welcomed Vientiane’s announcement, they soon were disappointed.

Soon after the Lao government’s announcements, a number of diplomats, MRC officials, experts, and donors visited Laos to see the site. After the visit some MRC observers then asserted that, “the project is in an advanced preparation stage with exploratory excavation in and around the river completed.”

Similarly, International Rivers concluded in their own unofficial investigation of the dam-site in June, that, “the dredging and widening of river has already taken place.”

Meanwhile back in Bangkok, Ch.Karnchang, the Thai developer of the US$3.8 billion project, said the dam was going ahead with no delays in the original timetable.

Initial construction has evidently started, however. Has the Laotian government then reneged on its international commitments?

Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravonghas denied any violation of the MRC agreements. Instead he contended that all the construction done so far falls under the rubric of “preparatory work,” noting that the construction “does not involve permanent structures” and instead is mostly about building makeshift housing for construction workers.

May 1, 2013 at 11:13

Not all 65 million people have their livelihoods depandant on Mekong river.


May 1, 2013 at 11:08

Opps mistake

"as a result of Xayabouri, Lao people will not end up at the point of no healthy foods to eat"


May 1, 2013 at 11:04

I think your comments are too negative. What do you mean "them", refer to all Lao people? It is true that the majority of Lao people are poor but we are not at the level of having nothing to eat. I am not supporting to build the dam but I think as a result of Xayabouri, Lao people will not end of at no healthy food to eat!. We have seen the reduction in fish stock in Mekong before Xayabouri dam built which invloved with many factors such as pop growth, dam in China, overfishing …..

Nothing wrong with your comments as you can comment what ever you want. Perhaps, do more research may help you  have constructive comments!

[...] plenty of tension between countries around water (such as between Thailand and Laos with the recent Xayaburi dam project in the Mekong River, and between India and Pakistan over the Indus River). Although countries [...]

November 11, 2012 at 00:47

I would feel safer as an animal in a zoo than an animal being lead to a slaughter house.

Charles Edward Frith (@charlesfrith)
September 8, 2012 at 10:45

What's the most effective way to raise awareness about this ecological threat?

August 8, 2012 at 13:59

@ Greg.
Yeh right…deprive them of their opportunities for developments, keep them poor so that tourists like you can visit and look at them like animals in the zoo…That's the truth…..

August 3, 2012 at 17:22

And when fish stocks begin dropping off and 65 million people no longer have free healthy food to eat, what happens? As a friend commented on Facebook: "The short answer is that they'll be starved out of their traditional lifestyles and end up being more cheap labor for the capitalist system. That's the short and horrible answer." And that's the truth. 

August 2, 2012 at 12:01

[...] Read more from Tom Fawthrop in The Diplomat. [...]

August 2, 2012 at 02:29

Laos should learn from the same mistakes as many South East Asian countries. Many countries on the whole peninsular and those after the Isthmus of Kra and Indonesia borrowed legislation from developed countries line the USA and Europe but reduced regulations into rubber stamping due to corruption.
Malaysia is a perfect example of bad Town and City planning. Corruption has not only brought hardship, poor quality of life and safety issues in the country but bad environmental control. Plantation owners and Developers that paid huge sums of money to politicians in Sabah and Sarawak have wrecked the country and labeled it “undesirable any longer”. The Chief Minister of Sarawak has accumulated billions of dollars in foreign accounts as a result of corruption. This is all well documented but unfortunately the country does not have a political will to prosecute. This is an example of why Laos should have the political will to have an excellent and independent judiciary to oversee administrative action. This can easily be made available by seeking out experts from the United States or Europe who have high standards.
Malaysian roads and townships are becoming like Thailand. Hopefully Laos won’t follow suit and be a beautiful, clean and efficient country-an example to ASEAN.

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