More than 60 representatives of communities along the Mekong River gathered in Bangkok Tuesday to protest construction of the controversial Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River in Laos, despite international criticism.
A Thai construction company signed an agreement last week for pushing ahead with the construction of the dam in northern Laos in defiance of a ruling by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental body that manages development along the regional artery.
According to the December ruling, the dam project should be delayed until a comprehensive environmental impact study can more properly identify potential risks.
Four Laotians took part in the protests in the Thai capital against Ch. Karnchang, the Thai company tasked with building the U.S. $3.8 billion dam, and a group of Thai banks lending the firm funds to proceed with construction.
The 1,260-megawatt dam would provide 95 percent of its electricity to Thailand.
“[Dam opponents] had blocked the project once before, but now [the Lao government and the Thai company] are restarting it,” one of the Laotians told RFA.
“If the dam is built, the local people will not be able to grow vegetables on the bank of the Mekong anymore. This will destroy their economy.”
Ch. Karnchang revealed last week that construction of the project in Laos would be stepped up from March 15. It said it expects to finish the project in eight years.
A representative of the Chaing Rai Lower Mekong People’s Network said protesters planned to present Ch. Karnchang’s lenders with a letter asking them to stop funding the project.
“When we were here last time, we submitted a letter asking Ch. Karnchang to stop the project, but they wouldn’t,” he said.
“Now we are going to the Siam Commercial Bank to ask the bank and three others to stop lending money to Ch. Karnchang because that money will have a serious impact on the people of the lower Mekong region.”
The other banks that have provided loans to Ch. Karchang include Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai Bank and Kasikorn Bank.
The letter also demands that Ch. Karchang immediately suspend the project because of the potential damage to the Mekong eco-system, fisheries, and food security of the people on both sides of the river.
Another protester said preliminary construction work, such as building of access roads, has been ongoing and affecting riparian communities in the vicinity.
“According to a survey we have conducted, the dam project has already evicted many villagers—our friends in Laos,” he said.
On Wednesday, the core leaders of the represented groups will meet with environmentalists in Nakhor Phranom province to hold another rally and to discuss the impact of the dam on the people and ecology, they said.
In December, Laos’s three downstream neighbors—Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—pushed for a suspension of construction following a campaign by environmental groups and local civil society and the recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams, pending additional research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
The four countries of the MRC agreed in principle that further studies on the Xayaburi Dam’s impact were needed before it could be built.
The MRC is the main body through which the countries negotiate and discuss transboundary effects of management of their shared river and has been important to building consensus in the region.
But experts say that if the Xayaburi moves forward, it could spell the end of the MRC, rendering it irrelevant as an institution.
Pianporn Deetes, coordinator for International Rivers, a California-based water rights group, said the Lao government must look beyond the short-term benefits of the dam.
“This project may generate some money for the government, but in the long-term the government should look at possible serious impacts to the Mekong River and the whole region,” she said.
“In addition, the dam will create a conflict in the region. The government should think about the people and their children, who will have to move to new villages where not much land will be available for them to cultivate.”
Laos, which has planned over 70 dams on its rivers, has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.
The Mekong River is central to the livelihoods and food security of an estimated 65 million people, studies have shown.
Reported by Nontarat Phaicharoen and Waroonsiri Sungsuwan for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.