As Southeast Asia copes with some of the worst flooding in decades, there are also worries over the environmental impact of a series of new hydroelectric dams now under construction. One dam in particular in Laos has drawn attention because of its impact on millions of people living in the Mekong Basin.
The Laos government's proposed Xayaburi Dam, located in mountainous regions of Northern Laos, is just one of 11 dams planned for the lower Mekong River.
Carl Middleton, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, says strategic environmental assessment reports (SEA) warn the dam would have a serious impact.
“The project would also entail major changes to the eco-systems of the Mekong River," he said. It would largely block fish migrations including the migration route for some of the most incredible species in the world including the Mekong giant catfish. So the SEA estimates that up to 41 fish species could be at risk of extinction.”
The $3.5 billion project would be the first to be built on the Mekong’s mainstream outside China and generate 1,260 megawatts of electricity, some 95 percent of which is expected to be bought by Thailand.
But Vietnamese and Cambodian officials have joined environmentalists in criticizing Xayaburi, saying it could severely harm fish stocks that are a vital source of protein to some 40 million people.
They warn the dam will directly affect over 200,000 people that depend on the river’s ecology as well as millions of people living downstream dependent on the river system.
Despite the concerns, Lao officials are still pressing for construction.
The Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission (MRC) has responsibility for final approval for construction after determining the dam’s environmental and ecological impact.
The Commission, with representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, is expected to deliver its verdict on the project at a meeting in November.
Srisuwan Kuankachorn, a co-director with environmental group, Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), says the November meeting could lead to a profound impact on the region’s politics.
“We have to take into account the impact of every dam because if one dam is allowed to be built it will lead to the developments of all the other dams", he said. So we have to take this into account in order for us to be able to realize that the meeting in November is not a technical meeting, because it’s not a technical decision it’s a political decision that will
reshape politics in this particular region of the world, very tiny region but very problematic region - I would say.”
Vietnamese government officials say there are concerns over the impact on the rice growing delta region. They have called for a moratorium on construction until the full impacts from all the dams are understood.
Nguyen Huu Tien an agronomist and wetlands specialist from Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, fears the dams pose a major threat to the Delta region’s ecology and environment.
“I personally think that the threats from the dams are one of the biggest threats to the Mekong Delta in its entire history", he said. The key losses include loss of sediment load and the loss of fisheries.”
The delta region produces half the food output of Vietnam as well as 90 per cent of its rice exports. The fishing industry in the delta is also a major contributor to the regional and national economy.