Mekong Utility Watch

Probe Alert: Mekong ecosystem under new attack, as Asian Development Bank prepares to finance dam in Laos

February 1, 1994

The Mekong River basin, after surviving years of destruction during the Vietnam War, is now facing another onslaught from the Western development agencies, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

The World Bank-financed Pak Mun dam on Thailand’s Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong, has been dogged by controversy since 1991 when Thai fishing communities and environmentalists around the world began their fight to stop the dam from flooding the homes, farms, and fishing grounds of 31 villages.

Now, with nearly all of the World Bank’s $54 million loan to the project ($23 million of it to build the dam) already spent, and the dam a year away from completion, independent experts have joined the fight, issuing a scathing review of the dam and accusing the Bank of treating the dam’s potentially devastating effect on the Mekong’s fisheries with “public relations gimmicks,” “amateurish” studies, and in “superficial” and “entirely inadequate” ways.

In a disturbing lesson to the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors, Drs. Walter Rainboth, George Davis, and David Wood-ruff, world-renowned aquatic biologists, recently explained that the Mekong supports one of the most diverse river faunas in the world, including well over 1,000 species of fish which move in complex and “stunning” migratory patterns.

That is now threatened by the Pak Mun dam, the experts warn, because the Bank ignored the ecological effects of dynamiting unusual rock formations and submerging rapids which provided crucial feeding grounds for migrating Mekong fish. Meanwhile, the dam structure itself, because it blocks fish migrations, will inevitably contribute to the extinction of fish species. The experts dismissed the Bank’s proposal to build a fish ladder to allow fish to migrate above and below the dam as “wishful thinking.”

The Pak Mun dam also threatens the livelihoods and the major source of protein of millions of people downstream in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Already, Thai environmental researchers have documented a distressing drop in fish populations along the Mun River.

Formerly healthy fishing families are now going hungry as their daily catches have dropped by 30% – those who earn their living from fishing have seen their fishing income drop by 75%.

The Bank, meanwhile, has refused to acknowledge or correct its mistakes. It recently gave the Pak Mun dam a clean bill of health in its mid-term review, and is planning to release the next loan installment to help finish the dam.

Asian Development Bank Plans to Exacerbate the Tragedy

Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank is preparing to finance another devastating dam in Laos on the Theun River, a tributary of the Mekong upstream of the Mun River.

Known as the Theun-Hinboun power project, this US$280 million dam is to be built by a consortium of Scandinavian and Thai companies with the Asian Development Bank arranging financing, including $60 million from its own funds. All the power will be transmitted to Thailand.

In May 1993, a Norwegian engineering consulting firm known as Norconsult, with financing from Norway’s aid agency NORAD, finished a feasibility study and environmental impact assessment that concluded that the dam is “highly viable and well justified.” This conclusion has since been roundly criticized by Norwegian and Thai environmentalists and by Norwegian state authorities for being wildly optimistic and drawn without proper documentation.

“The environmental assessment report is far from satisfactory,” declared the Norwegian State Pollution Control Authority, while the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Administration described the data presented by Norconsult as incomplete, recommending that NORAD hire independent experts for a second opinion.

Despite this indictment of Norconsult’s feasibility study and environmental assessment, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is using it as a basis for its own recommendation to the ADB’s Board of Executive Directors, which is planned for February 1994. The ADB Board is expected to vote to approve the loan in June 1994.

If the Theun-Hinboun dam gets the necessary funding it will compound the threat posed by the Pak Mun dam to the Mekong ecosystem because:  excavation and blasting of the river channel and rapids would destroy fish habitats, while the dam itself would block seasonal fish movements; drastically reduced flows during the dry season, immediately downstream of the dam, would cause adverse changes in water quality and biological productivity that would leave fish without their dry season habitat and with stagnant pools of toxic water; downstream ground and surface water supplies and, as a result, rice cultivation and river and delta fisheries of millions of farmers and fishers in Cambodia and Vietnam would be adversely affected; road construction to facilitate dam construction will accelerate logging, poaching, and encroachment by new settlers, causing increased soil erosion and siltation of the reservoir (the Nam Ngum and Xeset dams are barely operational for as much as six months a year because of this problem);  transmission lines into Thailand will require clearing a 350-kilometre corridor, much of it through forested areas; the water diverted from he Theun River to generate power would increase flooding in the low-lying farmland of the Hinboun River basin where it would be released; the reservoir would flood vegetable and fruit gardens and threaten some 2,500 people with flooding due to daily fluctuations in the operating levels.

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