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0.2 gigawatts to their enemy, Cambodia. Three dams are under construction: the Don Sahong Dam, the Xayaburi, and summer 2017 could see planning start on the colossal Pak Beng dam, in the heart of Laos’ Upper Mekong. This is where Francis Ford Coppola placed Kurtz’s base in his Apocalypse Now, and the area is now a popular tourist destination. Pak Beng will be a 912-megawatt giant that could produce 4,775 GWh of energy per year. “At the moment, there are no excavations, but there are often engineers and surveyors taking measurements and surveys,” explains Vilang Mak, a guide with the group Shampoo Tours, which specializes in cruises on the Mekong. The tastefully decorated teak boat is occupied by a dozen French tourists taking pictures of the thick, dense jungle around the Khmu ethnic villages that dot the river along the route from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai. “The dam will stop tourism in these areas, and cruises on the Mekong will become a memory,” continues Vilang. According to Pianporn Deetes from International Rivers, one of the leading organizations for the protection of rivers, interviewed in their Bangkok offices, “about 25 indigenous villages in Laos and two in Thailand will be wiped out by the Pak Beng dam construction. Over 6,700 people will have to be forcibly relocated.” For the countries bordering the river, the dam boom is a source of headaches. On the one hand, the Thai, Cambodians and Vietnamese will secure greater energy security. But, on the other hand, the Laotians’ plans, supported economically by China, are concerning from both a geopolitical and also a food security point of view. Even if today the countries can cooperate in emergencies (as demonstrated by China’s opening of supplies on the Mekong during the drought of March 2016), the control of water flow and sediment in the future could become a tool for political blackmail and a source of tension. According to Ho Uy Liem, vice president of the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations, “the dams will particularly harm the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, which produces about half of all rice, over 70 percent of fish, and almost all of the fruit in the country. An alimentary threat looms over the region,” underlines Liem, recalling how the Philippines and Indonesia depend on Vietnamese food exports. In an attempt to regulate diplomatic tensions, the states bordering the river created the Mekong River Commission (MRC) twenty years ago. The aim was to provide guidance on cross-border river management. “Let’s clarify immediately that we are a technical commission, not political, and we cannot make decisions,” says the president of the MRC, Pham Tuan Phan, holding his hands out in front of him

while scanning the horizon from his office window in the capital of Vientiane. In the distance is the market along the banks of the Mekong, and on the other side is neighboring Thailand. “With regard to the dams, we have provided important information on how to make implementation more sustainable, monitoring water quality and proposing joint development plans,” he explains in a meeting at the Vientiane headquarters. “We facilitate the consultation process. We meet all parties, including China, which is an observer, but we do not make political decisions. That’s up to diplomacy.” Those who are collaborating, in reality, seem little interested in such diplomacy. The impenetrable authoritarian Bounnhang Vorachit, president of the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party, governs Laos. He has built his developmental policy around dams, at the cost of eliminating internal opposition and any environmentalists who oppose construction. “Laos is not open to any discussion about the dams. Anyone who speaks often disappears,” explains an activist who prefers anonymity to protect his job and safety (there have been numerous murders of environmentalists, including the assassination of environmentalist leader Chut Wutty in 2012). In Cambodia, Hun Sen, prime minister since 1993 and leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, openly supports criticism against dams in Laos. However, he represses any comment on the projects on home soil. Thailand is split between Bangkok, which needs clean energy at a low cost to the economy, and the communities living along the river. The river communities are are suing Thailand’s national electric company, EGAT-Energy Generating Authority of Thailand, for supporting the Xayaburi dam, because they fear strong impacts on fishing. As for Vietnam, the Asian hydropower race is a defeat on all fronts. The country will gain little electricity for imports, a reduced fresh water supply and a collapse in the amount of fish in the river. There is also the risk that a reduced water level in the Mekong Delta could favor saline infiltration and subsidence. This would make the floodplains, the country’s breadbasket, less fertile. Xayaburi, a sustainable dam? Twelve hundred kilometers further north along the Mekong, among the mountains with climbing roads and hairpin bends – not even a kilometer of highway exists in Laos – lies the area of the Xayaburi dam. It’s not far from the enchanting pearl of Mekong, Luang Prabang. The numerous controls at once make clear the level of security around the project. “No journalists, no visits,” say the guards, signaling to leave. U-turn, go back. In the village of Xayaburi no one wants to answer questions. Nobody knows anything about the fate of the inhabitants of Houay Souy, one of the first villages

Renewable Matter #15  

Renewable Matter is the International Magazine focused on the changing relationship between Economy, Society and the Environment. It focuses...

Renewable Matter #15  

Renewable Matter is the International Magazine focused on the changing relationship between Economy, Society and the Environment. It focuses...