A man sits in a fishing boat while traveling along the Mekong River in Nong Khai province in Thailand. Concern is mounting among environmentalists over plans by Laos to build a new dam on the river. (Photo: AFP)
Thailand’s government may call for a new hydroelectric dam by Laos on the Mekong River to be scrapped, saying its environmental impact could further jeopardize the river’s already fragile ecosystems.
Laos’ plan to construct the Sanakham Dam on its stretch of the river with Chinese backing has been mired in controversy, with environmentalists warning of the harmful impact, and the Thai government now says it could use its influence to put an end to the planned construction.
“If we come to conclude that construction will have a damaging effect on the environment in Thailand, we will exercise our right as a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to stop the project under the Mekong Agreement,” said Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary-general of the Office of National Water Resources in Bangkok.
Laos, an impoverished nation whose communist government sees hydroelectric power as a source of extra income, has yet to conduct an environmental assessment study of the dam’s impact on the river, which passes through six countries between China and Vietnam.
“We have requested additional information from the Lao government, particularly regarding concerns we have over the trans-boundary impact of the project,” Somkiat said. “As far as I know, the correct environmental assessments have yet to be carried out.”
The planned new 684-megawatt dam in Laos would cost more than US$2 billion and take eight years to complete. Most of the electricity generated there would be exported to neighboring Thailand, which already has a surplus of electricity to meet domestic demand.
The dam would be located two kilometers upstream of the Thai-Lao border, but its environmental impact could be felt not only in Thailand but downstream in Cambodia and Vietnam as well, experts say.
Environmentalists in several countries have long been warning that any further dams on the Mekong, beyond those already operated upstream by China and Laos, could inflict irreversible damage on one of the world’s largest and economically most important rivers that provides as many as 100 million people with their sources of food and livelihoods.
“The proposed Sanakham Dam is expensive, unnecessary and risky — and should be canceled,” stresses Save the Mekong, a coalition of NGOs, community-based groups, academics and ordinary people who campaign against any further dams on the beleaguered river.
“We call for the Sanakham and other planned Mekong mainstream dams to be canceled.”
A cascade of 11 hydroelectric dams upstream in China and another two dams in Laos have already severely affected the river’s flow downstream, causing prolonged water shortages during the dry season and upsetting the river’s finely tuned ecosystems.
“Development projects, such as dam construction on the Mekong River and [its] tributaries to support a booming hydropower industry, are bringing great change to ecological, agricultural and cultural systems in this region,” warned Prof. Kenneth Olson, an American environmental scientist who has researched the effects of dams on the river and the people who depend on it.
These dams “could cause irreversible and long-term ecological damage to a river that feeds millions of people. [They] may push endangered fish, such as Mekong giant catfish, to extinction,” he added.
Changes in the river’s traditional flow because of upstream dams have especially harmed economically disadvantaged people living alongside the river in six nations.
“Water rises so fast and drops so fast because the water doesn’t flow naturally,” said Prayoon Saen-ae, an elderly fisherman who lives in a riverside community in northern Thailand.
“It has a huge impact on us. It’s hard to catch any fish, and the fish cannot lay eggs.”