* Experts warn of irreversible damage if dam goes ahead
* Four countries say issue should be handled by ministers
* Food security, agriculture, fisheries threatened
* Environmentalists, neighbours push for delay, detailed
(Adds detail, NGO comment)
By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, April 19
Plans for the first dam across the lower Mekong River are
putting Laos on a collision course with its neighbours and
environmentalists who fear livelihoods, fish species and
farmland could be destroyed, potentially sparking a food crisis.
The impoverished, Communist nation seems determined to defy
international pressure and forge ahead with construction of the
$3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam, a mostly Thai-led project that
experts say could cause untold environmental damage.
The four countries that share the lower stretches of the
4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong -- Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and
Cambodia -- failed at a meeting on Tuesday to reach an agreement
on construction of the 1.285-megawatt (MW) dam, the first of 11
planned in the lower Mekong that are expected to generate 8
percent of Southeast Asia's power by 2025.
In a joint statement, they said there was "still a
difference in views" and the issue should be handled at
Mekong basin countries are bound by a treaty to hold
inter-governmental consultations before building dams, but none
has veto powers and Laos will have the final say, although not
without considerable diplomatic pressure.
Ecologists and rivers experts say an environmental impact
assessment conducted last year by the Lao government was patchy
at best. They warn that the livelihoods of 60 million people in
the lower Mekong region are at risk if the Xayaburi dam goes
ahead without proper risk assessment.
Activists say scores of fish species face extinction, fish
stocks will dwindle as migratory routes will be blocked, and
swathes of rice-rich land could be deprived of fertile silt
carried downstream by Southeast Asia's longest waterway.
Entire villages would be forced to relocate.
According to a study by the Mekong River Commission, an
inter-government agency, the proposed 11 dams would turn 55
percent of the river into reservoirs, resulting in estimated
agriculture losses of more than $500 million a year and cutting
the average protein intake of Thai and Lao people by 30 percent.
China has built four dams on the upper river, closer to its
source, but they are equally controversial. Activists say they
were responsible for a drought last year that sent lower Mekong
water levels to their lowest in half a century.
Laos has not responded to the warnings or to scientists'
recommendations. Viraphonh Viravong, head of the Lao delegation,
said after Tuesday's meeting that it would "consider"
accommodating its neighbours concerns, but an extension of the
consultation process was no longer practical.
The Lao government has hailed Xayaburi as a model for clean,
green energy that will stimulate its tiny $6 billion economy and
improve the lives of its 5.9 million people, over a quarter of
whom live below the poverty line, many without electricity.
Its energy-hungry neighbour, Thailand, will buy about 95
percent of the power generated by the dam and three Thai firms
have a stake in the project, according to an announcement on
Thailand's stock exchange last month.
Thailand's No. 2 building contractor, CH Karnchang Pcl
, has 57 percent share in the project, state-owned energy
giant PTT has a 25 percent share and Electricity
Generating PCL a 12.5 percent stake in the dam, which
Thailand's government has said very little about.
Dubbed the "battery of Southeast Asia" because of its
hydropower ambitions, Laos is already committed to supplying
7,000 MW to Thailand, 5,000 MW to Vietnam, and 1,500 MW to
Cambodia by 2015. Its energy ministry says it has the potential
to generate 28,000 MW of power from the Mekong.
But opposition is fierce. Protests over the dam have been
held in Thailand and in some villages in Laos where dissent is
rare. Some 263 non-governmental organisations have petitioned
Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and his Thai
counterpart, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to scrap it.
U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and chairman of the U.S.
senate subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, said the dam
was "very troubling" and would "have devastating environmental,
economic and social consequences for the entire Mekong
"It would be prudent to delay construction ... until
adequate planning and multilateral coordination can be
guaranteed. Absent this collaborative approach, the stability of
Southeast Asia is at risk," he said in a statement last week.
Vietnam and Cambodia have made public calls for the project
to be postponed pending further studies, while state-controlled
media in Vietnam has been uncharacteristically critical, which
suggests behind-the-scenes diplomacy had failed.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong said
Mekong countries "must cooperate closely in exploiting and using
natural resources in a fair and proper manner", while Watt
Botkosal, deputy secretary general of Cambodia's National Mekong
Committee, called for a thorough study on the "impact on the
social economy that millions of people rely on".
What has raised eyebrows is Laos's refusal to back down in
the face of clear opposition from Vietnam, which has long
exerted major influence on its much smaller socialist neighbour.
Analysts say Laos has a lot to lose if it upsets Hanoi, its
"What's happening is unprecedented. It's hard to see who is
really in favour of this dam," said Ian Baird, an expert on Laos
and specialist on hydropower dams and fisheries at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Laos isn't going to make any friends here. Politically,
these are uncharted waters and it's difficult to see quite where
this is going."
Baird said the environmental assessment carried out by Laos
lacked credibility, while five international experts interviewed
by the U.S.-based environmental group, International Rivers,
delivered scathing criticism of a report they said was
"contradictory", "incomplete" and "irresponsible".
But what has outraged most activists and could embarrass
Laos within the 10-member ASEAN regional bloc are reports that
appear to show the Lao government and its Thai partners have
already started construction on the dam.
Sunday's Bangkok Post newspaper carried pictures of
construction of what it said was a 30 km (19 mile) stretch of
road leading up to the dam site, with 20 trucks lined up each
bearing the logos of CH Karnchang.
International Rivers said the decision to refer the case to
ministers was a reprieve that presented a window of opportunity
to strengthen international opposition to the project.
"Given the project's inevitable trans-boundary impacts we
urge the region's governments to acknowledge the widespread
concern of the public and civil society groups and indefinitely
cancel the Xayaburi Dam project," it said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh and John
Ruwitch in Hanoi; Editing by Robert Birsel)