A River in Peril: Laos Covertly Proceeds with Mekong Dam Construction Despite Neighbors

A River in Peril: Laos Covertly Proceeds with Mekong Dam Construction Despite Neighbors

Rachel Nuwer
Published: 06/23/2011


A pristine stretch of the Mekong in southern Laos. Credit: Rachel Nuwer
     
All is not well along the muddy stretches of the Mekong River. The environmental and human rights group, International Rivers, received a shocker earlier this week when a leaked letter revealed that Laos is steamrolling ahead with plans to build a massive dam across the main branch of the Mekong River. In an “egregious breach of trust” Laos has broken an agreement made with neighboring countries Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to defer construction until further studies and discussion could take place, according to a statement made by Ame Trandem, a Mekong campaigner at International Rivers.
      
Village fish market, southern Laos. Credit: RNuwer      
The controversial project, known as the Xayaburi Dam, has had conservationists and local stakeholders up in arms for months. In October, a Strategic Environmental Assessment, compiled by a team of 25 international scientists, made clear that any dam on the mainstream of the Mekong would represent a “global loss” in biodiversity and jeopardize the livelihoods of nearly 30 million people who live within ten miles of the river’s lower stretches. The dam would almost certainly drive already vanishing species like the Mekong giant catfish to extinction. The annual flooding and nutrient cycles of the river would be “fundamentally disrupted,” according to the report, impacting crop regimes and wreaking havoc on fish breeding and migration.
             
The leaked letter, written by the Lao government to the Laos-based Xayaburi Power Company, states that the Lao government, “in a spirit of cooperation and working together of all relevant parties,” believes that it has done everything it needs to do in order to clear the project. “Essentially, [the letter] gives the green light to the company to move forward,” says Aviva Imhof, the Interim Executive Director at International Rivers. In a second letter, the Xayaburi Power Company writes to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand saying that since the consultation process is complete, they would like to initiate construction.

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