The almost 5,000 kilometer-long Mekong River begins at the Tibet Plateau and runs through many countries including China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before draining itself into the South China Sea at its delta in Vietnam. So far, only China has dammed the mainstream of the Mekong which is known in China as the Lancang River, while lower-Mekong countries have built dams only on its tributaries.
However, since mid-2006, the governments of Laos, Thailand and Cambodia have granted approval to Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Russian and Vietnamese companies to do feasible studies on at least 11 projects to be built on the Mekong mainstream at Pakbeng, Luangprabang, Sayabouli, Paklay, Sanakham, Latsua and Donesahong in Laos, at Ban Koum and Pakchom along the Thai-Lao border, and at Strung Treng and Sambor in Cambodia.
Laos, one of the poorest nations in Asia, is seeking to exploit its hydropower potential to become the battery of East Asia and sell electricity to its developed neighbors, namely Thailand and Vietnam.
Environmental groups, including International Rivers, have expressed objection to these projects which they say will threaten the livelihood of local people and the river’s ecological health, including its rich fisheries upon which millions of people depend on.
International Rivers’ Mekong Program Coordinator, Dr Carl Middleton, says his organization recently presented an 88 page-long report to government and donor representatives in Vientiane at an official consultation of the Mekong River Commission’s Hydropower Program and urged them to explore economic alternatives to hydropower.
Environmental groups say the 11 proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream could displace many thousand villagers and harm hundreds of species including Pa Buk or giant catfish and Pa Kha or the Irrawaddy dolphins.
Lao officials, on the other hand, stress that these projects are only at the feasible study stage. Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Yong Changthalangsy said the government will take a thorough look at the results of the studies and will not approve any project that is deemed to have devastating environmental and social impacts.
Listen to our Special Report for more details in Lao.