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Asean Affairs  21 April 2011

The Mekong River gets a reprieve

By  Reinhard Hohler

AseanAffairs     21 April 2011

Government representatives from the four lower Mekong Basin countries have agreed that the decision on the Xayaburi Dam, the first dam proposed for the lower Mekong mainstream, should be deferred and elevated to the ministerial level.

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According to a press release from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), while Lao PDR proposed to proceed with the dam, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam called for an extension to the decision-making process, citing concerns about trans-boundary impacts and knowledge gaps that require both further study and public consultation.

“Today the Mekong River has gotten a much-needed but temporary reprieve. The Mekong River is a valuable shared resource, and the Xayaburi dam’s trans-boundary impacts require agreement between the region’s governments and the public” said Ms. Ame Trandem, Mekong Campaigner with International Rivers. “A healthy Mekong River is central to sustainable development in the region, and simply too precious a resource to squander. 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.”

The Xayaburi Dam, if built, would forcibly resettle more than 2,100 people and directly affect more than 202,000 people, and could threaten the extinction of approximately 41 fish species, including the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish. An additional 23 to 100 migratory fish species would be threatened through a blocked fish migration route. These impacts in turn will affect the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the region.

“This delay is an acknowledgement of the dam’s far-reaching ramifications for the Mekong River ecosystem and millions of people in the region. We expect the Lao government to respect the decision of the MRC Joint Committee,” said Chhith Sam Ath of the NGO Forum on Cambodia. “We hope the governments of the region have recognized that much more needs to be understood about the river and its rich fisheries before a rash decision is made that could threaten the integrity of the entire ecosystem and the livelihoods of millions of people” said Nguy Thi Khanh from WARECOD, a Vietnamese NGO.

The project has been subject to intense criticism regionally and internationally. Numerous fisheries experts and other scientists who recently reviewed the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment agreed that it is sub-standard and insufficient to accurately determine the project’s impacts, let alone stand a chance of mitigating them. Furthermore, the MRC Secretariat’s own Technical Review highlighted the grave environmental and social harms associated with the project, and also identified considerable knowledge gaps that remain and require comprehensive study. Fisheries scientists unanimously agree that the dam's impacts on fisheries cannot be mitigated and that proposed fish ladders will be ineffective as they are based on designs for fish species in North America, primarily salmon.

“We are happy to hear that the project has been delayed, but we will continue to fight for our Mother Mekong and for the health of the river’s fisheries, which provides so much to so many people in this region. We will continue to push the Thai government to cancel the agreement to buy power from the Xayaburi Dam,” said Jirasak Inthayos from Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai Province, who joined a protest against the Xayaburi Dam.

An earlier "Save the Mekong" petition of 23,110 signatures was submitted to the region’s Prime Ministers in October 2009, and in March 2011 a letter from 263 nongovernmental organizations to the Prime Ministers of Lao PDR and Thailand also called for the cancellation of the Xayaburi Dam.

The Mekong River is central to the lives and culture of mainland Southeast Asia. As the world’s largest inland freshwater fishery, the Mekong River feeds millions of people throughout the region, and the river’s extraordinary aquatic biodiversity is second only to the Amazon River. The Xayaburi Dam is the first of 11 large dams proposed for the lower Mekong River’s mainstream.

Reinhard Hohler ,an experienced tour director and media travel consultant on the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, was born in Karlsruhe, a port on Europe's Rhine River. His first contact with Asia came in 1970, and he has lived in Thailand since 1987.

Paul A. Ebeling, Jnr

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This year in Thailand-what next?

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