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By Thin Lei Win
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (AlertNet) - The inhabitants of Ban Pak Ing Tai, a leafy village in Thailand’s far north nestled between the mighty Mekong River and one of its tributaries, know only too well what dams can do.
This used to be a fishing village but nowadays local men are more likely to be found toiling away in corn fields or working as labourers than out on their boats.
They say vital sources of their food, water and livelihoods - from fish and riverweeds to seasonal wetlands for agriculture - are fast disappearing due to Chinese dams on the Mekong, which flows through six countries.
As a result, they vehemently oppose plans for big hydropower projects that would involve building dams on the Mekong in Laos, largely aimed at selling electricity to Thailand.
Village headman Phoomi Boonthom, 54, only fishes in his spare time now. Despite more than four decades of experience, he catches less than a kilo of fish after two sessions on the river on a hot June afternoon in peak season.
“This year’s been the worst in terms of catch. In the past, I used to get 10 kilos per round,” he told AlertNet, displaying a small box with some ice and fish.
The water level is too low and fluctuates too sharply for the fish to migrate, he said, putting the blame firmly on China.
“They built dams and blocked the water,” he said. “I also saw news on TV that if (Laos) finishes the Xayaburi and Pak Beng dams, there will be lots of problems, from here all the way down to Vietnam.”
The Mekong, flowing from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, is the world’s 12th largest river.
The Mekong River Commission says its fisheries have an estimated value of $5.6 to $9.4 billion a year, and provide food and livelihoods for some 60 million people living along its banks.
Experts say fish and other aquatic animals provide 40 to 80 percent of animal protein in local diets. And more than 80 percent of the populations of Cambodia and Laos, as well as communities in large areas of Thailand and Vietnam, meet their water needs from the Mekong basin’s rivers.
FIRST LAWSUIT OF ITS KIND
Much is at stake – and that is why, in an unprecedented action, Thai villagers from eight Mekong provinces are planning to take the government to court over the controversial $3.5 billion, 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower project in neighbouring Laos, which plans to export 95 percent of the power it produces to Thailand.
The dam is to be part-financed by Thai banks and its main developer is Thailand's second-biggest construction firm, Ch Karnchang Pcl.
The plaintiffs accuse the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) of agreeing to purchase energy generated by the Lao scheme without an adequate assessment or public consultation, as required by Thai law.
“This is the only way we can fight (these powerful interests),” said Niwat Roikeaw, director of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, upstream of the planned dam. “We used reason and tried to present everything that could happen (because of the dam) but they didn’t listen.”
Niwat, representing Chiang Rai – and villagers like Phoomi – is part of the Thai’s People Network of Eight Mekong Provinces which is threatening to file a lawsuit on August 7 unless the agreement to purchase power from Xayaburi is cancelled.
“This is the first regional legal case on a transboundary project involving overseas investment,” said Pianporn Deetes, campaign director for environmental group International Rivers in Thailand.
“We hope it will set a new ‘standard’ for overseas investment from Thailand and the Mekong hydropower… for social and environmental responsibility,” she added.
The EGAT declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Ch Karnchang - which has a 57 percent share in the Xayaburi project - did not respond when contacted by AlertNet.
Xayaburi is the first of a dozen dams planned by landlocked, impoverished Laos, which has ambitions to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting most of the power generated by its hydro projects.
But critics say Xayaburi’s Thai developer has not properly assessed the dam’s social and environmental impacts, which could include damage to fish migration routes, farm land, food security and local livelihoods.
A report by the U.S.-based Stimson Center, Mekong Turning Point, said the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) identified the area for study as extending only 10 km downstream, when the impacts would clearly reach much further.
“(Xayaburi) is not only about water flows and destroying migratory fish population, but also upstream dams holding nutrient-rich silt that (Vietnam’s) Mekong delta needs,” said the report’s author Richard Cronin, a senior associate with the Stimson Center.
“Cambodia is worried about the Tonle Sap Lake and millions of Cambodians who depend on the fisheries for food and livelihood. You’re talking about people already living on $1 or $2 a day losing everything,” he added.
Cronin said such cross-border consequences mean the debate over Xayaburi and other Mekong dams goes far beyond basic trade-offs involving water and food.
“Laos has the sovereign right to go ahead, but it’s a question of what’s the cost going to be, particularly in terms of relations with your neighbours and regional stability?” he said.
Xayaburi has already angered Cambodia's government and upset Laos's biggest ally, Vietnam, over its possible downstream effects.
In December, under pressure from neighbouring countries, Laos agreed to put the project on hold, pending further studies led by Japan.
Nonetheless, International Rivers said in June it had witnessed Ch Karnchang resettling villagers, building a large retaining wall, and undertaking dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed – a claim denied by official media in Laos.
In mid-July, Laos declared publicly for the first time that work on the dam had been halted.
The Mekong River Commission has recommended a 10-year moratorium, but it is unclear how long Laos is prepared to wait.
For the communities who rely on the Mekong’s water, ecosystems and biodiversity for survival, preserving those natural assets is paramount.
But for investors and energy-hungry governments, the electricity that could be produced by harnessing the river’s waters in hydro schemes is an opportunity to generate profits and economic growth.
Nathanial Matthews, a researcher with London’s King’s College, said hydropower development in the Mekong region amounts to “water grabbing”, which he defines as “when powerful actors take control of water resources for their own benefit”.
The benefits are rarely shared with local people, he told AlertNet. They tend to be ethnic minorities and vulnerable people relying on the river’s resources who are more likely to experience any negative effects.
China, for example, has been accused of changing the Mekong’s natural hydrology and causing the devastating 2008 floods in northern Thailand by releasing water from upstream dams and destroying rapids to facilitate dam construction and boost trade.
Some activists and academics also say Thailand’s electriticy authority is overestimating future demand and emphasising the need for new capacity rather than efficiency gains.
The 12 dams planned for Laos would meet only around 6 percent of Thailand’s total energy demand by 2020 – an amount the southeast Asian nation could save through reasonable energy efficiency measures, according to the Stimson Center’s Cronin.
"If dams are going to be built, which I think is inevitable to an extent, we need to make sure the costs don't outweigh the benefits," Matthews said. “It's not about being anti-dams. It’s about better dams.”
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