Four Countries And A Dam

Nov 17, 2012 By Arati Rao
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This is a story of four countries, one river, and one controversial dam.  Xayaburi is the first of eleven dams planned along the Mekong River in South East Asia by Laos. And its neighbors: Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, are worried about it.

The controversy

The $3.8 billion first of eleven dams at Xayaburi on the Mekong River in Laos has stirred up quite a storm. On the one hand, the prime minister of Laos told the Wall Street Journal that the project was “awaiting further study,” but on the other hand, work seemed to be going on at the site of the dam. The reason the prime minister might have held back is because the project is under heavy scrutiny and protest from Laos’ neighbors.

A dam on the river could mean many things. Millions of people depend on the river for their livelihood: fisheries and agriculture. A dam upstream from where they live would mean that silt will not be able to flow naturally bringing nutrients to fish and farms, and fish themselves will not be able to travel upstream to mate and spawn. Over 60 million people depend on these two industries and the dam could jeopardize their lives.

Why Laos is going ahead

Laos is a poor country. Building hydroelectric dams upstream on the Mekong will allow it to generate and sell electricity that could increase its GDP. Laos has planned 10 more dams after Xayaburi. It wants to become a “battery state” for South East Asia. Its neighbor, Thailand, has already negotiated to buy 95% of the electricity generated by Xayaburi. For Thailand, Xayaburi is a double-edged sword. The Thai farmers and fishermen who stand to lose from the dam are up in arms against it, while the company building the dam is Thai and the Thai government will buy most of the electricity. This puts the country in a delicate spot.

The way ahead

While Cambodia and Vietnam agree in principle to the Xayaburi dam, they are wary and want environmental clearances to first come through and thoroughly. Laos for its part says that they have amended the initial plans of the dam to include novel means for the fish and the sediments to travel up and down the river in spite of the dam. The naysayers contend that the scheme is unproven and the environmental cost of a Xayaburi like dam, and ten others like it, could just be way too high.

For now, preliminary work goes on, at the site, Thai farmers have filed a suit against their country’s decision and await their day in court, the Laos government stands firm on its resolve to build away, and the neighbors keep a wary eye on the proceedings. 

Here is a video on the Mekong and opinions about the dam: