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Mekong under threat (23/03/2011)
Mekong under threat

     The Mekong Delta is known as Vietnam’s biggest rice producing and fish farming area responsible for half of total food output and 40% of fishery production in the country. The Lower Mekong River’s annual natural flood cycle makes the delta’s rice fields fertile and brings migratory fish species to local fisheries-dependent communities.

     It is the Mekong Delta that has turned Vietnam from a food importer to one of the world’s leading rice exporters, and to the world’s leading exporter of tra fish, or pangasius. These achievements have ensured the livelihoods and food security of the delta’s 18 million-plus population.

     Those successes are at stake, though. Neighboring Laos is planning a major dam worth US$3.5 billion on the mainstream of the river that, as one of the world’s most biodiverse river systems, cultivates a vast web of life in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

     The issue has recently grabbed the limelight. The Xayaburi Hydropower Dam in the northern Lao province of Xayaboury and its potential threat to the Mekong River have made headlines in local media since the project was brought up through a regional decision-making process known as “Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement” (PNPCA) due to its basin-wide impacts.

     Xayaburi has reached the most advanced stage of planning of a dozen mainstream dams that would be developed in the Lower Mekong River and it became the first mainstream dam to be submitted to the regional countries in September last year, according to a fact-sheet of International Rivers, an organization that protects rivers and defends the rights of communities dependent on them. It is also one of six projects that would be developed in a 1,100km Mekong River stretch running from Northern Thailand’s Chiang Saen to Vientiane in Laos.

     The 810-meter-long dam has the potential to cause an environmental catastrophe in the river basin, according to experts. The livelihoods, incomes and food security of not only communities in Laos but those in Cambodia and Vietnam as well will be impacted.

     Nguyen Huu Thien, a Vietnamese environment expert who has many years’ experience in researching the Mekong River, says in Tuoi Tre newspaper that agriculture and aquaculture as the two most important pillars of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta would certainly collapse when 12 dams were built in the Lower Mekong River. The Mekong Delta alone will suffer a loss of 220,000 to 440,000 tons of migratory fish a year if all these dams go up, Thien said, and the cost of this loss would be enough to build one to three similar Can Tho cable-stayed bridges a year.

     The irrevocable change to the river as a result of damming will leave biological impacts to breeding and spawning grounds needed for the lifecycle of fisheries, says the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). International Rivers says Xayaburi will put at least 41 fish species at risk of extinction.

     The SEA report also shows the amount of fertile silt in the Mekong Delta’s intricate river systems will plunge to one fourth of the current level, from the current 160-165 million tons to about 42 million tons a year. Less silt means less rice. And Vietnam’s position as one of the world’s biggest rice exporters will be threatened.

     At a consultation on the Xayaburi Dam held in Halong City, Quang Ninh Province Tuesday this week, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Thai Lai said the biggest concern for the Mekong Delta would be acute water shortages, not flooding or pollution, as this would deliver a blow to communities living along the river, with most of them still poor.

     Therefore, experts at the consultation recommended the Xayaburi project be halted so that the Lower Mekong River countries will have more time to consult and reach agreement on the proposed mainstream dams. The SEA report suggests postponing decision-making on the proposed mainstream dams including Xayaburi for 10 years.

     The proposed mainstream dams – 10 of them in Laos and two in Cambodia – will meet around 6% of electricity demand in the region and provide 5% of output for Vietnam, said Truong Hong Tien, an expert at the Vietnam National Mekong River Committee. But they will turn 55% of the 1,750km-long Lower Mekong River into reservoirs.

     Laos forwarded the Xayaburi Dam project for prior consultation in the Lower Mekong River countries in October and the period of consultation is six months. According to the online newspaper VnExpress, Laos and Thailand are pushing for this project as both have already clinched agreements on project development and power purchase. The project whose lead developer is Thailand’s Ch. Karnchang Public Company will generate an estimated 1,260 megawatts of electricity, with 1,220 megawatts of it to be bought by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) through a 200-km-long transmission line, according to the International Rivers fact-sheet.

     No doubt any more. Vietnam will be one of the hardest hit countries. So according to Phap Luat newspaper, the authorities will need to take a proactive role in preventing the Mekong Delta and the country as a whole from the potential catastrophe and independent research should be done to garner compelling evidence that the Xayaburi project will do more harm than good, thus forcing Laos to shelve it for good rather than delaying it as a mere show of goodwill.  (Source: The Saigon Times Daily)

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