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Biodiversity be dammed - plans for Mekong River ignore warnings from failed Thai dam

By Martin Leggett - 06 Mar 2011 11:33:0 GMT
Biodiversity be dammed - plans for Mekong River ignore warnings from failed Thai dam

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has called for a 10-year halt in proposed dam developments, in the lower Mekong River system, this Thursday. This is in response to a feasibility study into the Xayaburi dam in Laos – one that the WWF considers inadequate.

The dam project is being put forward by the Thai developer CH Karnchang PCL, and is supported by a number of Thai banks. The 'consultation' phase of the project has just ended, but the WWF sees no evidence that the lessons of the failed Mun River dam – constructed over ten years ago in adjoining Thailand – have been learned.

There, the Thai government is now considering opening the gates on the Mun River dam, because of its catastrophic effects on fish populations, as well as the downstream inhabitants. Not only were the environmental consequences of the Mun River dam severe, it failed to make money for its investors. The capital outlay doubled during its construction, and the water flow failed to produce the energy envisaged in the original plans.

Now the WWF sees the same mistakes – of poor understanding of the affected ecosystem, and rushed environmental assessments – as threatening the biodiversity of one of Asia's most important riverine systems. The National Policy Coordinator of WWF-Thailand, Dr. Suphasuk Pradubsuk, explained the lower Mekong's importance ''The Mekong is a unique and particularly complex ecosystem that hosts the most productive inland fisheries in the world and is second only to the Amazon in number of fish species.''

So concerns also reflect a very real threat to the livelihood of local fishermen, who depend on the productivity of the existing mosaic of Mekong tributaries. During the consultation, most of the Thai banks involved in the Xayaburi dam project, including Bangkok Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and Krung Thai Bank, did not even respond to requests for meetings from the WWF.

The released Xayaburi feasibility study offers little comfort that lessons are being learned. Phansiri Winichagoon, WWF-Thailand Country Director, said ''The study blandly assures us that impacts of the Xayaburi dam would be low level, without providing anything much to justify this optimism''.

That is why the WWF are asking for a 10-year moratorium, to ensure the proper level of research and assessment is done. Options may well exist for sustainable hydropower projects – without the negative consequences for fish migration and livelihoods, already suffered on the Mun River.