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Impacts of the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River Interview

The Mekong River is currently under siege by a proposal for a major dam on the river’s main stream in northern Laos. Recently, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam agreed to put construction of the Xayaburi Dam on hold until an official impact assessment can be made of the potentially adverse environmental, social, economic, and food security effects of [...]

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The Mekong River is currently under siege by a proposal for a major dam on the river’s main stream in northern Laos. Recently, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam agreed to put construction of the Xayaburi Dam on hold until an official impact assessment can be made of the potentially adverse environmental, social, economic, and food security effects of the project on the Mekong Basin as well as the rest of Southeast Asia. (For more on this, go to Xayaburi Dam is the Greatest Threat to the Mekong.) Environmental and social groups in the region are currently pushing to have the Xayaburi Dam proposal removed from the table completely, claiming that it would destroy the Mekong as we know it, lead to the extinction of many endemic species, damage the economies of many of the countries involved, raise poverty, lower the food supply, all the while producing electricity that is not even needed. Vagabondjourney.com spoke with Teerapong Pomun from Living River Siam about the potential hazards of the Xayaburi Dam and the situation surrounding its proposed construction.

What threats does the Xayaburi Dam pose to the wildlife and ecosystem of the Mekong basin?

Woman selling fruit on the Mekong River

The dam will impact the whole riverine ecosystem, especially fish species. Blocking the fish migration pattern is a big threat to the fish population. There are about 781 fish species in the basin, and many of them are endangered or rare species. According to Dr Eric Baran, a scientist of the World Fish Centre, fish cash in the river basin is about 2.1 million tons per year. More than one third of this cash is migratory fish. The Mekong Giant Catfish is the world’s biggest scales fish, and is found only in the Mekong River. This species weighs about 200 kilograms (400+ pounds). As is the case with many migratory species in the Mekong, if the Xayaburi Dam is built this specie will not be able to pass the fish ladder and soon go extinct.

Water fluctuation is another main threat the Xayaburi Dam poses to the Mekong river basin. Fish migration and the riverine ecosystems depend heavily on natural-seasonal flow of the river. The change of river flow causes the loss of migratory instinct. The fluctuation will also cause serious river bank erosion which impacts ecosystems along the mainstream river and its tributaries, such as wetland, forest, sand beach, islands, and etc.

What economic/ lifestyle/ health ramifications does this dam project pose for the people living in the region?

Local people depend heavily on the health of Mekong riverine ecosystem. After having experienced impacts from Chinese Mekong dams for many years, local people along the lower Mekong River foresee that the Xayaburi dam will cause a lot more impacts. The main impacts are the loss in agriculture and fisheries. Ton Le Sap in Cambodia and Mekong Delta in Vietnam are one of the world most important natural resources and food security sources.

In the dry season, the Mekong’s river bank is the main agricultural area for the local people. Communities along the banks grow many kinds of vegetable for household consumption and income. Fluctuation in the river’s level will destroy these gardens. Unpredictable water flow and levels will make it so local people cannot grow crops. Blocking natural fertilizer is another impact that the dam will have on the Mekong delta in Vietnam. This is a big rice producing and agriculture area, and will be impacted by the dam because of the loss of fertilizer and sanitation. As Vietnam is the world second biggest rice exporter, this will also hurt the Vietnamese economy.

Fishing is also very important for food and income generation for those communities on the lower Mekong. It is estimated that the value of the fisheries in the basin is about 235,600 million Bath per year (30 Baht per 1 USD). According to Dr Eric Baran, the fish cash in the basin is about one sixth of the world’s freshwater catch. Ton La Sap and the Mekong River are very important for Cambodia in term of food security and income. 90% of their fish supply comes from the river and lake. Fish is about 81% of the country’s protein supply.

Giant Mekong Catfish

Is the electricity that would come from the Xayaburi Dam, and those like it, even needed? What are the other energy options?

This dam is not even needed. 95 % of electricity produced from this dam will be import to Thailand which has enough energy. Their future demand forecast is always overestimated. We have been fooled by the Power Development Plan. Efficiency energy management and alternative energy are cheaper than building a dam. The government has to seriously support these options. The era of large-scale dam construction in Thailand has come to the end. The public is now aware about environmental problem and understand that large-scale is not the solution.

What forces are conservation and other groups that oppose the dam up against? Who wants this dam and why?

The Lao government is the first main actor. It wants to generate income for developing country by building dams as a policy to be a battery of Asia. However, Laos should choose other options that are sustainable development and do not cause transboundary impacts. Thai, Cambodia, and Vietnamese governments also play a key role in decision making. They have to listen to their people and make decisions based on the profits of the four nations.

Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) will buy 95 % of electricity generated from this dam. Without purchasing electricity by EGAT, the dam cannot go ahead because Thailand is the only country that can possibly buy it. Ch Karnchang is a Thai company who will construct the dam and they will get a loan from four Thai banks. Therefore, Thais have to responsible for the impacts to Thai people in our eight Mekong provinces and to the people in our neighboring countries.

If this dam project does go through, what do you foresee as the future of the region environmentally, socially, and economically?

Map of the Mekong River

If this dam is built some fish species will go extinct. Fish cash will decline and influence the economy in all the countries of the region, especially Cambodia. Riverbank gardens will be destroyed. Consequently, millions of people along the river will be the first group who face the serious problems with food security. The Vietnamese and Cambodian economies will be severely adversely impacted.

Besides environmental, social, and economic impacts, conflict between the four Mekong countries is another problem that may occur. The three countries may blame Laos for the damages to their economies and people that the dam causes, and Laos may point the fingers to Thais, who are the builder, investor, and purchaser of the electricity. Moreover, if this dam is built, it will make it easier for the other 11 lower Mekong dams that are now proposed to be built. The impacts will be great.

What is your organization, Living River Siam, doing to help conserve the Mekong? What can other people do to assist your efforts?

Living River Siam works with local organizations along the Mekong River to protect the riverine ecosystems and their community rights. We support them to conduct Thai Baan Research, which is done by villager researchers based on their local knowledge. The research will empower local communities to engage in decision making. Another main project is to disclose data and information about dams to the local people. To do that, we organize meetings with local communities and distribute media and publications to them. To make local voices to be heard and their rights recognized, we publicize the results of the research and field surveys. We also organize activities for the locals to meet with decision makers or media, such as organizing field trips and meetings. Our main achievement this year is setting up the “Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces,” a network of local communities in the provinces along the river. This was another step towards a “Mekong Community Network” or “People’s Commission of the Mekong River.”

Dam construction is a controversial issue that is hard to get financial support for, especially in Thailand. Donations are another way that other people can get involve. Volunteering with us to support the local communities and make their voices heard is another way to assist us.

To find out more about the Xayaburi Dam and the projects that Teerapong Pomun and Living River Siam are doing, visit their website. 

Additional resources about the Xayaburi Dam

Filed under: Conservation, Environment, Laos, Rivers, Social Issues, Southeast Asia, Thailand, Top Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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