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Laos dam plan sparks fresh fears over Mekong

Move to make country 'battery of Southeast Asia' threatens millions and the river, environmentalists say

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: May 20, 2020 05:43 AM GMT
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Laos dam plan sparks fresh fears over Mekong

A man sits in a fishing boat while traveling along the Mekong River in Nong Khai province in Thailand. Concern is mounting among environmentalist over plans by Laos to build a new dam on the river. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

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Laos has shrugged off concerns by environmentalists over a new dam the landlocked communist country is planning to build on the Mekong, adding to two large dams it already has on the river.

Environmentalists are up in arms after the Lao government signed off on plans to construct yet another hydropower dam called the Sanakham, which will be the seventh large hydroelectric construction on the Mekong.

The Mekong’s flow and water level, environmental experts warn, have already been badly impacted by a cascade of dams in China further upriver as well as Laos’ two current dams, the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi and the 260-megawatt Don Sahong.

“What the Mekong needs immediately is a moratorium on large-scale hydropower dams, not more destructive dams that will benefit a few at the expense of communities in the Mekong basin,” said Paiporn Deetes, a member of the conservationist group International Rivers.

Built by a subsidiary of China's Datang International Power Generation Co, the new 684-megawatt Sanakham Dam will cost an estimated US$2 billion. Construction is slated to start early next year and is expected to be completed in 2028.

Laos is one of Asia’s poorest countries and its government sees dams as a steady source of revenue by selling domestically generated electricity to its wealthier neighbors, especially China and Thailand.

However, environmentalists say that large hydroelectric dams have already caused massive ecological damage to the Mekong, which provides food and livelihoods for some 200 million people along its length that stretches across six nations from China to Vietnam.

Last year the water level of the Mekong fell to historic lows for months on end as a result of a prolonged drought. Communities along the 4,350-kilometer-long river have also been badly impacted by the periodic disappearance of fish stocks and a lack of sufficient amounts of water for agriculture.

Locals living by the river in northern Thailand, on the border with Laos, are concerned that the new dam will cause yet more damage to the Mekong. 

“The Sanakham Dam will be just two kilometers from our border,” said Montree Chanthavong, a Thai environmental activist at the Mekong Butterfly conservationist group. “There will be clear impacts in Pak Chom district [in Loei province] and Nong Khai province, and the impacts will be even stronger than those caused by the Xayaburi Dam.”

Yet Laos does not seem overly concerned about the environmental costs of turning the country into the “battery of Southeast Asia,” he said.  

Lao authorities plan to export some 20,000 megawatts of electricity by 2030 with several other dams in the works for the country’s stretch of the Mekong.

Yet further large-scale construction on the river could sound the death knell for the mighty Mekong.

“Development projects, such as dam construction on the Mekong River and tributaries to support a booming hydropower industry, are bringing great change to ecological, agricultural and cultural systems in this region,” warned Kenneth Olson, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois’s department of natural resources and environmental sciences who recently published a study on the issue.

Among other environmentally harmful effects, dams impact the seasonal changes of the river, which alters the diversity and abundance of fish and restricts the flow of the river downstream.

“Dams trap sediment needed as a nutrient source for fish, block fish migration and reduce the amount of sediment deposited in the Mekong Delta,” Olson said.

“Lower Mekong River levels have accelerated saltwater intrusion into the delta region [in Vietnam], adversely affecting rice production, and have contributed to ground water pollution.”

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