Damming The Mekong: Cambodia Facing A Thai-Made ‘Catastrophe’

Posted on by Alex Watts


Weighing up short-term economic gains against long-term environmental costs is always a thorny issue in geopolitics. But when the profits are reaped in one country and the ecological costs are suffered in another, then it’s all the more problematic.

There are few better examples than the controversial hydroelectric dams planned for the Mekong River – particularly the Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos, which campaigners say could devastate fish stocks in Cambodia and Vietnam by blocking migration routes, and may lead to the extinction of critical species like the giant Mekong catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin.

In a worrying development, it appears Thailand’s CH Karnchang is ploughing ahead with construction of the $3.5bn site despite regional agreements that no work should take place until more environmental research is done into the likely impact on the 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong area.

On Tuesday, the development company’s chief executive Plew Trivisvavet informed the Thai Stock Exchange that its subsidiary Karnchang (Lao) had signed a contract with the Xayaburi Power Company (conveniently, another subsidiary of CH Karnchang) – and construction work was scheduled to begin on March 15 last month.

At the time of writing, the Cambodian government said it was trying to get confirmation from Laos that the dam was going ahead, and that the need for further study agreed by the four members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – last December had been ignored.

Officials again warned of the huge environmental costs the project is likely to bring to Cambodia and its future generations, and stressed the need for more research to be carried out.

There is little doubt the issue will be raised at the fourth Japan-Mekong summit on Saturday, when the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are due to meet Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to discuss how best to ensure prosperity, stability and sustainable development in the Mekong region and East Asia.

Environmental groups say work is already being carried out on the dam – including land clearing and road building – and some of the local population have been forced to relocate.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director at environmental group International Rivers, blasted CH Karnchang’s actions and said the Thai firm “has once again demonstrated that it is a socially irresponsible company attempting to push forward a costly and destructive project.”

She said she hopes stakeholders raise the matter at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Bangkok on Tuesday.

“Shareholders should demand that CH Karnchang immediately halt all construction of the dam and abide by international law. As the regional governments have yet to approve this dam, CH Karnchang has no authority to press forward with the construction,” she added.

“Furthermore, CH Karnchang’s shareholders should be alarmed that the company has failed to even carry out a transboundary environmental impact assessment. Without knowing the full extent of devastation this project is likely to cause, it’s risky business to proceed.”

The Xayaburi Dam – the first of 11 dams proposed for the Lower Mekong mainstream – will take an estimated eight years to build and will bring huge economic benefits to Laos, which will sell 95% of the dam’s 1,260 kilowatts of hydroelectric power to Thailand.

So far, the fast-flowing currents of the Mekong have only been dammed across its upper reaches in China. But experts believe that if the Xayaburi project goes ahead, the other 10 (eight in Laos, and two in Cambodia – which are also subject to the MRC consultation process) – will also be built.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says construction of any dams on the Mekong mainstream should be shelved for at least 10 years until a “proper risk assessment is conducted”.

As well as blocking fish migration routes, the group said a recent review of the Xayaburi project confirmed it would also block part of the sediment flow – which is essential for maintaining balance in the river’s ecosystem.

Last month, a study by Stanford University in California highlighted the “catastrophic impact” dams on the Mekong could have on Cambodia’s impoverished villagers, who scratch a living in the world’s largest inland fishery.

“The revenue will come to Laos, by exporting energy to Thailand,” said the report’s lead author Guy Ziv, “and the fish will be lost in the floodplains of Cambodia and Vietnam, but mainly in Cambodia.”

“[The loss of fish] translates to a big impact on food security of a very poor population. There is a huge population that relies on a cheap food supply from fish, and their livelihood will be impacted.”

In the fast-developing nations of SE Asia, ecological, humanitarian and diplomatic concerns always seem to get a backseat in the relentless quest for economic growth. Highly destructive projects like dam building are sold on the promise of the monetary benefits they bring – and as always it is the poor who will suffer most, and benefit least. But when they aren’t even living in the country making the money, it is far harder to stomach.

Alex Watts

Top photo used courtesy of International Rivers


2 Responses to Damming The Mekong: Cambodia Facing A Thai-Made ‘Catastrophe’

  1. btbres says:

    Your title should have been “Damning the Mekong.”

  2. Joe Brennan says:

    Let’s get one of those spy drones up and check on what’s going on at the site.

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