The mighty Mekong River is about to face its greatest test. This month, the governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will decide whether to give approval to the first ever dam planned for the lower Mekong mainstream, the Xayaburi Dam.
Much is at stake in this decision. The Mekong River is the world's largest freshwater fishery, providing the main source of protein for 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin. The amount of fish caught here is staggering -- about 2% of the world's fish catch is caught from this one river basin each year.
The Mekong's strong currents and scenic rapids in the remote province of Xayaburi in Northern Laos are important spawning grounds of several important migratory fish species, including the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish. This riverine cornucopia is now at risk. Since 2007, Ch. Kamchang, a large Thai construction company, has been planning to build the massive Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong's Kaeng Luang rapids.
The Xayaburi Dam would have a capacity of 1,260 megawatts, comparable to the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. According to an independent review, it would directly affect 202,000 people and put at least 41 fish species -- including the Mekong Giant Catfish -- at risk of extinction. The Xayaburi Dam could also open the floodgates to further dam building on the river. It is the first of a total of 11 dams on the lower Mekong mainstream under consideration.
A healthy Mekong is priceless, and local communities are fighting the Xayaburi and other proposed projects. In 2009, more than 23,000 people signed a petition appealing to the governments of the region to keep the Mekong flowing freely. Ten days ago, 263 environmental organizations from 51 countries sent a letter to the prime ministers of Laos and Thailand calling for the Xayaburi Dam to be canceled.
Around the same time, affected communities and local civil society groups held spiritual ceremonies and public events to protect the Mekong. "As local people have already suffered from dams built upstream in China and watched the ecosystem change, we are afraid that the Xayaburi Dam will bring more suffering to our livelihoods," said Kamol Konpin, the mayor of Chiang Khan municipality, at a local event in Thailand. "Our lives and livelihoods depend on the health of the Mekong River."
Alternatives to the destructive projects exist. Thailand, the main market for the electricity to be generated by the Mekong dams, has other ways of meeting its energy needs. In a report, environmental organizations documented that the country has a renewable energy and cogeneration potential of more than 15,000 megawatts. Making existing power plans more efficient could provide 7,700 megawatts, and demand-side management, 2,500 megawatts. The capacity of the Xayaburi Dam pales in comparison.
Official sources have confirmed the concerns of local communities and environmental organizations. In October 2010, a scientific report commissioned by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) recommended that any decisions about dam building on the Mekong mainstream be deferred for 10 years because of the huge impacts to the river's fisheries and people's livelihoods. The MRC brings together the four governments of the lower Mekong basin.
A few days ago, the MRC secretariat published a review of the Xayaburi Dam's environmental impact assessment and other project documents. The review confirmed the grave social and environmental harm that the project would cause, and identified considerable information gaps that still need to be addressed. "If any delusional fantasies remained that mainstream dam building could be sustainable, the Mekong River Commission's new independent technical review of the proposed dam has surely dissolved them," comments Ame Trandem, International Rivers' Mekong campaigner.
The governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will decide about the construction of the Xayaburi Dam on April 21. Will they give in to the short-term interests of a well-connected Thai corporation? Or will they listen to the voices of local communities and scientific experts?