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ASEAN ANALYSIS  27 September 2010

Mekong River battleground

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   27 September 2010

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Natural resources are a source of income for Asean countries. With the exception of Singapore, the other nine Asean countries, have a fair amount of energy resources to generate income and advance national interests.

Myanmar is a prime example. With its treasure trove of energy, forest, gem and other resources, it curries favor with China and Thailand to prop up its military regime and enrich the bank accounts of the generals.

Landlocked Laos , one of the few states remaining under one-party communist rule, has lowered its poverty rate from 46 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2009. The economy has benefited from high foreign investment in hydropower, mining, and construction. Yet, its Gross Domestic Product remains 135th in the world.

Up to now China has drawn most of the criticism for its plans to dam the upper reaches of the Mekong River, now Laos joins the controversy by announcing its plans to seek regional approval. The county stated in its submission to the Mekong River Commission that it wants to build a hydropower plant at Sayabouly in northern Laos to generate foreign exchange income "We don't want to be poor anymore, if we want to grow, we need this dam."Viraphone Viravong, director general of the country's energy and mines department, said. When approved the electricity generated by the dam would be sold to the neighboring countries of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, all countries with advancing economies.

The Sayabouly is one of 11 dams proposed on the lower reaches of the Mekong and these would endanger the magnificent, giant Mekong catfish that can grow up to 650 pounds. Meanwhile, the Thai government plans to build two dams on the mainstream Mekong River - Ban Koum dam in Ubon Ratchathani, and Pak Chom dam in Loei.

In addition, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and Burma plan two dams on the Salween River, the last free-flowing river in Southeast Asia. About 30 percent of the Salween flows into the Chao Phraya river that flows through Bangkok.

Coincidentally, the water level in the Mekong hit a 20-year low, which some farmers believe is related to the Chinese dams. The Mekong People Network and other local groups oppose the dams, especially since they see the flow of the “mighty Mekong “ diminish.

The coming year may be a “year of truth” for the Mekong as Asean countries seek more power to fuel economic development.

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