Saturday, April 23, 2011

In Making Dam Decision, Laos Balances Hydropower and Flood Control with Environmental Uncertainty and Angry Neighbors


This week Laos deferred a decision to dam portions of the Mekong River to develop hydroelectric power that it can export to generate badly needed foreign exchange. Laos plans to develop 11 dams across the lower Mekong River that travels through Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The government planned to begin construction soon on the $3.5 dollar dam soon, but last minute protests by some neighboring countries over environmental concerns led the Lao government to delay the decision.

Laos is a nation of six million people and is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its economy is dependent on agriculture and foreign aid. The Lao government hopes that by exporting power it can develop the income necessary to develop other sectors of its economy, like mining and manufacturing. Laos is a member of the Mekong River Commission, a group of countries that attempts to settle international water disputes related to the Mekong River. The Mekong River Commission has the ability to express concerns and encourage dialogue, but is unable to sanction governments or stop projects on the river.

Most of Laos’s neighbors have expressed concern over the project. Vietnam has called on Laos to defer the hydropower dams for 10 years until neighboring governments or third parties can conduct more environmental assessments. However, Thailand has been a strong supporter of dam project in part because Laos will export 95% of the electricity generated by the dam to Thailand and because a Thai construction firm will design and build the damn.

The World Wildlife Foundation and more than 250 other environmental NGOs have warned that the Mekong Delta’s ecosystem will be significantly altered by the dam. They say that over 60 million people in the region depend on the river for food and their livelihoods. Further, they say the giant catfish could be driven to extinction if Laos builds the hydropower dams.

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