BANGKOK – A plan for the first dam across the Mekong River anywhere in its meandering path through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam has set off a major environmental battle in Southeast Asia.
The $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam is slated for the wilds of northern Laos and would generate power mostly for sale to Thailand. The project pits villagers, activists and the Vietnamese media against Thai interests and the Laotian government in its hopes of earning foreign exchange in one of the world's poorest countries.
A decision on whether the dam gets the green light, is axed or deferred for further studies is expected April 19 during a meeting in the Laotian capital among Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Opponents warn it could open the way for 10 more dams being considered along the lower Mekong.
"Our lives and livelihoods depend on the health of the Mekong River," said Kamol Konpin, mayor of the Thai riverside town of Chiang Khan.
"As local people have already suffered from dams built upstream in China and watched the ecosystem change, we are afraid that the Xayaburi dam will bring more suffering."
China has placed three dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong, but otherwise its 3,000-mile (4,900-kilometer) mainstream flows free.
The Xayaburi would cut across a stretch of the river flanked by forested hills, cliffs and hamlets where ethnic minority groups reside, forcing the resettlement of up 2,100 villagers and impacting tens of thousands of others.
Environmentalists say such a dam would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients for downstream farming and even foul Vietnam's rice bowl by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta.
A Thai firm would build the 1,260 megawatt hydroelectric project. However, Thai villagers along the river are staging protests and planning to deliver letters to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Lao Embassy in Bangkok, where the Thai government has maintained an official silence on the issue.
Pianporn Deetes, of the U.S.-based International Rivers, said environmentalists are ready to take their case to court if Abhisit doesn't deliver a positive response.
Last month, 263 non-governmental organizations from 51 countries sent letters to the governments of Laos and Thailand urging that the project be shelved.
Laos said in February that the Xayaburi would be the "first environmentally friendly hydroelectric project on the Mekong" and that will "not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream."
"We are excited about this project," the statement said.
Vietnam's official media, in a rare disagreement with its communist neighbor, has blasted the dam, while scientists and environmental groups have called for its construction to be delayed for 10 years until more research is conducted.
"It seems that countries of the lower Mekong still haven't learned lessons from the impact of the Chinese dams," Pianporn said. "Xayaburi is so important because it could set off the destruction of the lower Mekong."
Since 2007, there have been proposals to put up 11 mainstream dams in Cambodia and Laos.
The Mekong River Commission, set up by the four Southeast Asian neighbors in 1995 to manage the river, has expressed serious reservations about Xayaburi. A study by the group recommended a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams, a stand supported by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Southeast Asian trip earlier this year.
The commission cited feared damage to migrations of between 23 and 100 fish species, among a host of other environmental problems.
Another MRC document showed nobody spoke in favor of the dam during public consultations this year in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, while many officials, academics and residents cited problems or lack of information about the project. No consultation was held in Laos.
"If this project goes ahead it would be unimaginably irresponsible," said Ame Trandem of Rivers International.
Somkiat Khuengchiangsa, who has spent his life along the river and heads The Mekong-Lanna Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network, said governments are more interested in the economics of the project than its effect on residents.
"Rivers are not the property of nations or groups of people. They belong to all mankind," he said.