Dam plans will impoverish Laos' poor

From ToxicLeaks

In 2010, an EIA or Environmental Impact Assessment report was produced by the Thai mega-construction firm CH Karnchang, regarding a proposal to build the Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos, across the Mekong river. Expecting an evenly balanced and objective report from a company that was receiving a US$2.7 billion bankroll to undertake and complete construction, as well as owning the Xayaburi Power Company which would be responsible for supplying the expected 7,406 GWH annually, was probably a serious stretch of faith. No surprise then, that when the NGO International Rivers reviewed CH Karnchang's EIA, it was published under the sub-heading, “Fatally Flawed Xayaburi EIA Fails to Uphold International Standards”. Of course, a conscience for the greater good has rarely won its way around a couple of billion dollars, and building went ahead despite the obvious issues highlighted in International Rivers' review. Currently, the Xayaburi dam is about halfway from finished, due to complete in 2020, yet the controversy surrounding its construction is still rife.

The most obvious issue in any dam building project is the potential for disruption to fish migration, and in a dam building project of this scale that potential is increased accordingly, especially as built across the Mekong River – Southeast Asia's longest waterway and the largest inland fishery in the world. This, make no bones about it, is a river deserving of special attention, as important a source of biodiversity as the Amazon Basin or the Great Barrier Reef. Yet, CH Karnchang's almost dismissive assessment of the environmental impact of building a dam there takes little to no account of the Mekong's importance to the region. International River's review targeted the perfunctory nature of the EIA, finding that extant studies on the subject were wholly ignored and field sampling was almost intentionally light, drawing upon only around 33% of the available biodiversity in the impact area – an area which anyway was too small to accurately reflect the dam's impact.

Some lip-service has been paid to the environmentalists at least. CH Karnchang have indeed gone to great pains to appear as though having the environment's best interests at heart. Hence, in order to facilitate the migration of the Mekong's numerous fish species, a number of measures have been implemented with which the Thai construction company's PR department have attempted to parry the barbs of the media and relevant NGOs alike. Foremost among these is the introduction of so-called “fish ladders”; a series of stepped ascents which allow the fish to find their ways through specially designed channels to the other side of the dam. In reality, however, where the Xayaburi dam is concerned, fish ladders exist for show purposes only. Although relatively successful in North America, as CH Karnchang have been keen to point out, the differences in the biodiversity of migrating fish species between the Mekong and American rivers is striking, where in the latter's case most migration is performed by the humble salmon. However, compare that particularly spirited and acrobatic fish with the lumbering bulk of the endangered Mekong giant catfish for example, a fish which has been recorded as weighing up to 650lbs, and the issues become immediately apparent. Unfortunately, the Thai construction firm's “oversight” means that the world's largest freshwater fish is doomed to a non-migratory existence and, isolated from its traditional spawning and feeding grounds depending upon which side of the dam it is locked, this could accelerate its already precarious place on the planet earth firmly towards extinction.

The Mekong giant catfish is not the only fish at risk once the waters are stopped at Xayaburi. In fact, if similar situations elsewhere in Southeast Asia are to go by, the numbers of fish species that are predicted to suffer by the building of the dam are huge. One particular species which is of particular interest and importance, is the Pa (or pba) Soi. Not only is this in its contribution to the rivers biodiversity, but also because it is a particularly populous fish and its migration journey allows people the length of the mighty Mekong to access an extremely important food source. Translating to “mother of waters” it is not for no reason that the Mekong has earned its name. Running through some of Asia's poorest regions, especially in the cases of Laos and Cambodia but even in Thailand's relatively poor north-east, protein is a resource that is not easily come by. In fact, beyond the occasional morsel of chicken and teaspoon of soy curd, fish is often the local inhabitants' only source of this particular essential nutrient. The Mekong runs for a distance of 2,700 miles from Tibet to Vietnam, and the migrations of fish along its length feed some 70 million of nearby village dwellers. Allowed to run its course, this is an extremely sustainable situation. Indeed, there are parts of the Mekong where you can almost walk on water because of the density of the gangs of feeding fish. However, once dams are thrown into the equation, if only for the effect of hindrance upon movement never mind the long term effects upon breeding, then the consequences for human life along the riverside are vast. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the banks of the Mekong are not as easily able to walk into a swanky Bangkok restaurant to fulfil their dietary needs as are the directors of CH Karnchang.

There might be those who are tempted to argue for the trickle down effect of the neo-liberal economic model for providing justification enough to build the Xayaburi dam. Surely, with the kind of output mentioned above, Laos will benefit to an extraordinary degree; many of its people recipients of the kind of comparative wealth that they could formerly have only dreamed of. The Xayaburi project has been wholly embraced by the Laoitian government, in pursuit of its much publicized ambitions to become the "battery of Southeast Asia". However, the truth of the matter is starkly in contrast to such expectations. As would be expected, with Thai cash bankrolling the project and a Thai firm responsible for both building and overseeing the dam's energy production, most of the benefit is going west of the Mekong rather than east. All well and good should the resultant payments make their way to the pockets of the river's hungry fishermen and women – at least somewhere down the line. Laos, however, has little in the way of a reputation for caring for its poorer citizens and Thailand even less so. Most neutral observers hence expect the energy to wing its way to Bangkok, specifically under the auspices of Thailand's national electricity authority, EGAT, and the money to find itself tucked away in the back pockets of the senior members of the Laos Communist Party's Politburo. The riparian people of the nation have been asked to give up their very means of existence to sponsor the ambitions of an energy greedy foreign state, and a corporate giant in CH Karnchang, that is facilitating that handover.

The issue of the Xayaburi dam has never stopped being topical for the riverside dwellers of Laos – and also those of north-eastern Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – but it has recently hit the headlines again of a largely uninterested world press due to expectations by the relevant lobbies that the recent talks between the ASEAN nations and President Obama in California would address their concerns. Apparently this has been far from the case, and with security issues dominating the talks instead, a golden opportunity to respond to the Laoitian fishing communities' plights seems to have been missed. Fortunately, these communities have not entirely relied upon the good will of outside parties, and have taken the battle to the corporations responsible, citing the illegality, both in Thai and international law, of building a trans-boundary project of this ilk without having first made the proper consultations and agreements. And yet the construction work continues. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, however, the construction work at Xayaburi is only the first of several dam projects that are being planned up and down the length of the lower Mekong.

The effect upon the biodiversity of the Mekong has already been discussed here in quite startling terms, as is also the case for those communities reliant upon fish migration for their very lives, so it is not difficult to imagine the devastating effect that a further one or two dams would have. In fact, CH Karnchang is not on its own in exploiting the weak political situation incumbent in the People's Republic of Laos, and major firms from all over the stronger economic fringes of East and Southeast Asia have been lining up to fill their energy coffers at Laos expense, with a further 10 dams tabled for construction in that region. China's dam construction on the Upper Mekong has already caused untold damage to the welfare of the immediate environment and to those who live sustainably within it, with reports of changing water levels and fish stocks already negatively affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands. If the international community stands by and continues to allow such a travesty to continue unchallenged, as challenged it certainly is in a legal position to be, then the death of the Mekong might be as little as decades away. Of course, if you are a director at CH Karnchang or similar, you can just get your fish delivered from elsewhere. It is just a shame that not everyone is so lucky.