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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs        18  April 2011

River commission to meet on proposed dam

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Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as member states of the Mekong River Commission are meeting in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on Tuesday to decide whether Laos should proceed with the $3.5 billion 1,260-megawatt dam, called Xayaburi. The dam is part of the effort to harness the Mekong River into the world's next big source of power. Laos hopes to use revenues from Xayaburi and other dams to drive economic growth in what remains one of the world's least-developed countries, while Thailand is expected to be the main purchaser of the hydroelectric power.

It has already been reported by Thai media that preliminary work, including forcing families to move, has started on the project in Laos by the Thai construction company assigned to build the dam.

But environmentalists and some government officials, especially in Vietnam, are wary. They say the project will damage downstream fishing areas—a major worry given the rising anxiety over food security in Asia—and force some residents to abandon river communities.

The dam also could set a precedent for further development on the Mekong, activists fear, and accelerate the construction of 10 or more other dam projects proposed in recent years for the river's main stream, mainly in Laos and Cambodia. A study released by the Mekong River Commission, created by the four Southeast Asian countries in 1995 to help manage the river, found late last year that if the dams were built, they would "fundamentally undermine the abundance, productivity and diversity of the Mekong fish resources," affecting millions of people, and jeopardize farming operations, further threatening food supplies.

The group said the dams also would widen the gap between rich and poor, and it recommended a 10-year moratorium on dam-building so that more study can be done.

Southeast Asian nations "are in a position to cut their own throats," with the proposed Mekong dam projects, said Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that studies security issues. "It's not in anybody's interests to see a disaster in food security" caused by hydro dams, he said.

Southeast Asian nations have long argued over how best to develop the Mekong, which remains one of the last major rivers world-wide that isn't dammed through most of its length, though it has dams in its upper reaches in China. Under the 1995 deal that created the Mekong River Commission, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam agreed to consult one another whenever one of them planned a major dam project. Although no country can veto another's plans, analysts believe it would be hard for one of them—especially a country as small as Laos—to proceed if a neighbor strongly objected.

It wasn't immediately possible to reach a Laos government spokesman for comment on the project. In a statement in February, the government said Xayaburi, to be located in the jungles of northern Laos, was an "environmentally friendly hydroelectric project" that would "not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream," the Associated Press reported. It added, "we are excited about this project."

Vietnam, by contrast, has made clear it fears the dam could hurt its famous Mekong River delta, where residents rely heavily on its waters for survival.

"There still is a lack of appropriate and comprehensive assessments of the transboundary and cumulative impacts of the project," said Truong Hong Tien, deputy director general of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, a division of Vietnam's environment ministry. He said he "strongly recommends" the dam be delayed.

A Thai government spokesman confirmed the country's energy ministry is interested in buying power from Xayaburi but said officials want more information on environmental impacts.

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This year in Thailand-what next?

AseanAffairs   04 January 2011
By David Swartzentruber      

It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

The first issue that can’t be answered is the health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, who is now 83 years old. He is the world's longest reigning monarch, but elaborate birthday celebrations in December failed to mask concern over his health. More


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