BANGKOK, Thailand, October 24, 2019 (ENS) – In five days, the Xayaburi Hydropower Project on the Mekong River in northern Laos will formally begin operations. As the first dam on the lower Mekong mainstream, this marks a turning point for the Mekong River.

The Mekong River is 4,350 kilometers (2,703 miles) long, ranked 12th in length and eighth in water discharge in the world. The river originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand before pouring into the alluvial floodplains and delta in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The main purpose of the Xayaburi dam is to produce hydroelectric power, 95 percent of which is to be purchased by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

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Xayaburi Dam, nearly completed, July 2019 (Photo courtesy Green News Agency, Thailand)

From the outset, the Xayaburi dam was a controversial project due to widespread concerns over its expected impacts on the river system, including transboundary impacts in neighboring countries.

Major predicted impacts include the destruction of Mekong migratory fisheries and trapping of sediment, preventing it from traveling downstream.

The dam’s environmental impacts, in turn, threaten the food, livelihoods and socio-cultural systems of populations residing within the river basin.

Many experts believe that the Mekong, already suffering from the impacts of six dams installed in China on the Upper Mekong, and with more dams planned downstream in Laos and possibly Cambodia, is in crisis.

During the Xayaburi dam consultation process, many stakeholders raised concerns over the project and questioned the adequacy of the data and studies.

The Vietnamese government called for a project suspension and a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams pending further study to better understand the river system and the impacts of planned dams.

In Thailand, community representatives along the Mekong River filed a landmark lawsuit in the Thai Administrative Court challenging Thailand’s power purchase from the project. Originally filed in 2012, following several appeals, the lawsuit remains pending more than seven years later.

Despite this, the Xayaburi dam moved forward, with the developers undertaking a redesign in an effort to mitigate concerns.

Subsequent dam projects have followed. This month, the Mekong River Commission announced the commencement of Prior Consultation for Luang Prabang, the fifth lower Mekong mainstream dam to undergo the process.

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The Xayaburi Dam site in northern Laos before development, March 23, 2011 (Photo by Prince Roy)

In the lead-up to the commissioning of the Xayaburi dam, the U.S.-based nonprofit group International Rivers issued a new report on the dam. The group asked two independent experts to provide comments on the Mekong River Commission’s review of the Xayaburi redesign, released earlier this year.

The report of the experts, Dr. Philip Hirsch, professor of Human Geography at the University of Sydney, Australia; and Dr. Oliver Hensengerth, associate professor of social sciences at Northumbria University, England, examines the pattern of Xayaburi in setting a benchmark for decisions on mainstream dams and highlights “the urgent need for a truly regional approach to safeguard the Mekong’s future.”

Although International Rivers says dam development is “silencing” the Mekong River, this expert commentary is not intended as a critique or assessment of the MRC Review, said the group in a statement. “Rather, it seeks to draw out key points and discuss their implications for Xayaburi and other dams under construction or consideration on the lower Mekong mainstream and within the region.”

On Wednesday, a panel discussion of the International Rivers report with academic, community and civil society speakers at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok provoked comments on the project’s history, its flawed decision-making process, the ongoing campaigns, and Xayaburi’s implications for the ecosystems and people of the Mekong Basin.

International Rivers has described the “build first, study later” approach propagated by the Xayaburi Dam process as “a dangerously irresponsible model for dam-building in the Mekong.”

To read the report, “Review of Design Changes Made for the Xayaburi Hydropower Project,” click here.<https://www.internationalrivers.org/sites/default/files/attached-files/xayaburi-redesign-commentary-for-website.pdf>

The Mekong floodplains and delta are among the most agriculturally productive and biologically diverse waterscapes of the world, but sea level rise, land subsidence, and the proposed upstream development of over 126 hydropower dams and extensive delta-based water infrastructure have raised concerns about the potential impacts on the hydrology of the region.

International Rivers is not the only environmental group with concerns about the Mekong River Basin.

A Mekong Delta Study conducted by Denmark’s DHI Consulting Group concluded it was likely “that even the best available fish passage technologies’ may not be able to handle either the massive volume of fish migrations, which during peak periods can reach up to three million fish per hour, or the diversity of migration strategies that characterise the hundreds of fish species in the basin.”

The Mekong River Commission, which governs the dam development of the basin, is also concerned, according to the latest report, State of the Basin Report 2018, released on Tuesday in Vientiane, the Laotian capital city.

Established in 1995, the Mekong River Commission, MRC, is an inter-governmental organization that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong River.

The organization serves as a regional platform for water diplomacy as well as a knowledge hub of water resources management for the sustainable development of the region.

The MRC report warns, “The apparent permanent modification of mainstream flow regime, the substantial reduction in sediment flows due to sediment trapping, the continuing loss of wetlands, the deterioration of riverine habitats, the growing pressures on capture fisheries, and the limited information sharing on current water development facilities and water use,” are some of the major challenges facing countries in the Mekong Basin.

“We need to address these issues now in order to minimize further environmental harm and protect remaining wetlands and riverine habitats before they are gone, while leveraging the benefits of more secure and increased dry season flows and achieving a more optimal and sustainable development of the Mekong basin,” Dr. An Pich Hatda, chief executive officer of the MRC Secretariat, told nearly 100 officials from the four MRC countries at the launch ceremony.

This latest State of the Basin Report advises that “a more proactive regional approach to basin planning and management, with an enhanced and systematic information sharing mechanism and robust monitoring of river flow must be put in place urgently to address these basin-wide challenges.”

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