Updated at 11:10 a.m. EST on 2013-03-15
The government of Laos must devise a comprehensive plan for the development of dams in the land-locked country, a dam expert said Thursday, as villagers downstream along the key Mekong River express concern that the new Xayaburi dam will adversely affect farming and fishing.
The expert, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity, said that he does not oppose the construction of dams in Laos, but wants the government to form a plan of action that will result in more sustainable use of the country’s river systems.
“I do not mean stopping all dam construction, but the government should better consider which dam should be built where, and which dam should not,” he said Thursday in marking International Day of Action for Rivers.
“They must consider which dam should be built first and which should be built later,” he said.
“The government needs a development plan.”
According to Ittiphon Khamsouk, a Thai representative of eight riparian provinces along the Mekong River, one example of a dam project that the Lao government has not thoroughly evaluated is the Xayaburi dam, which will become the first dam to be built across the mainstream of the Mekong River.
Resource-starved Laos, which has a total of over 70 dams under construction or in the planning or consideration stages, is aiming to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors.
But it has drawn ire for pushing forward with the U.S. $3.5 billion Xayaburi hydropower dam without first getting regional consensus from downstream neighbors concerned about the project’s transboundary impact.
Khamsouk said that activists in Thailand, which sits downstream on the Mekong from the Xayaburi dam, had planned a number of protests against the project in several provinces throughout the country to mark International Day of Action for Rivers.
He said dam experts and villagers who live along the Mekong were to gather at forums in the capital Bangkok, as well as in Ubon and Loei provinces, where they will exchange information about how the Xayaburi and upstream dams in China are likely to impact riparian communities.
In addition, he said, Thai senators and experts were to meet this week to discuss filing a lawsuit against the Thai government, calling for a cancellation of its power purchase agreement with Laos’s Xayaburi Power Co. An earlier agreement would send 95 percent of the dam’s electricity to Thailand when the dam becomes operational.
The 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi is the first of 12 dams to be built on the Lower Mekong River.
Thai villagers have recently complained that their fishing and farming has already been affected by what they allege is the opening and closing of Chinese dams upstream on the Mekong, and they say that the Xayaburi will exacerbate the problem.
One riparian villager, who gave his surname as Khaew, said access to water from the Mekong has become increasingly unpredictable, making reliance on planting crops like rice, chilies, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, lettuce, and other vegetables a risky business.
“After China completed its [first of four hydropower] dams on the Mekong in 1993, the way of life for Mekong riparian communities was changed forever,” Khaew said.
“Crops used to be planted in January, February, and March, but now they can't be planted because we don’t know when water will come, or if it will come,” he said, adding that recently the Mekong had dropped to between 2-3 meters (6-10 feet) compared to a normal depth of 12 meters (40 feet).
“This causes difficulties for farmers, affecting their work and family finances. When they can't grow vegetables, they have no income.”
The average annual income of Thai villagers living along the Mekong River is around 28,325 baht (U.S. $950).
Khaew said that the dry season in Thailand had come earlier than usual this year and had been drier than usual. But sometimes, he said, the water level would rise rapidly.
Farmers in the area believe that the changes are a result of China opening and closing its dams in a bid to generate electricity.
“Sometimes there is too little water, but sometimes the water streams so fast that it floods our crops on the river bank,” Khaew said.
A farmer from Nongkhai province who gave his surname as Tom said that the season was particularly unusual this year, with the Mekong drying up as early as December. He said villagers are worried that the Xayaburi dam will make things even worse.
"Usually, the Mekong River begins drying up in February, March, and April, but for the past two to three years it has already dried up by the end of November or early December,” he said.
“The four dams that China has built must have closed their water gates to generate electricity—that's why the water is drying up."
Fish farmers, who breed in floating stands on the Mekong, say their businesses have also been hit as a result of the lowered river levels, which they say causes higher water temperatures that kill their stocks.
"When the water is shallow, it causes fish to die,” said a fish farmer from Nakhone Phanom province who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The water was never as low as it is presently. Now it is so dry and the water is so shallow. When the water levels shrink, it becomes hot.”
According to data from the Thai government, at least 562 families in nine villages of five northeastern provinces lived along the Mekong River in 2012.
Mekong flooding damaged around 70 percent of crops in the villages, while drought on the Mekong destroyed about 40 percent of crops last year.
Action for Rivers
In an article published by the Bangkok Post on Thursday, Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator with the California-based International Rivers, said that as countries open up to free trade and try to boost transborder investment, corporate giants in Asia have jostled with one another to exploit smaller, resource-rich countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Burma.
“As investors, with support from their governments, seek only to maximize profits, they pay little attention to the impacts on local villagers and river ecology,” she said in an editorial highlighting the 16th anniversary of International Day of Action for Rivers.
“They seem to forget that environmental problems have no boundaries, and that they too cannot avoid the negative consequences of their own projects.”
She said that a number of studies indicate that the Xayaburi dam, if built, will severely curtail the fish populations of the Mekong and that the project, along with the other 11 dams planned for the river “will deal a heavy blow to 2.1 million people and the environment” while only generating 11 percent of the region's power demand.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a Lao dam expert's comments to Ittiphon Khamsouk.