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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Opinion: The Mekong River's Pandora's box

Opinion: The Mekong River's Pandora's box

WHEN Zeus warned Pandora never to open the box given to her, the temptation proved too strong and Pandora forever unleashed into the world misery, suffering and sorrow.

Today, much like this mythical Greek tragedy, the decision-makers of the Mekong sub-region face a similar temptation in the form of a cascade of hydropower dams proposed for the Mekong River’s mainstream.

They have also received Zeus’ warning from a Strategic Environmental Assessment report, which warns of the grave social and environmental consequences should the dams proceed.

In September last year, the government of Laos initiated a regional decision-making process, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission, or MRC, for the proposed Xayaburi dam located in the mountainous province of Xayaboury in northern Laos.

Over the next four months, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will make a joint decision on whether or not to approve construction of the dam, which would be the first of 11 mainstream dams proposed for the lower stretch of the river that runs through the four countries.

The initiation of this regional decision-making process on the Xayaburi dam pre-empted by three weeks the release of the SEA report, which was commissioned by the MRC in May 2009 and was originally intended to inform future decisions on mainstream dam development.

Whilst to most it would seem common sense to consider the SEA report’s recommendations before moving to more advanced stages of decision-making, given the report’s hard-to-swallow findings for mainstream dam developers, it is perhaps not so surprising that the Xayaburi dam has been pushed quickly ahead by its proponents, leap-frogging the launch of the SEA report by weeks.

The SEA report concludes that construction of dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream would irreversibly undermine the ecology and economic productivity of the river and will place at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend upon the river’s resources. It recommends that decision-making on Mekong mainstream dams, including Xayaburi, be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risks and vast impact associated with the projects, and the need for more than 50 more critical studies to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about these risks.

With very limited commitment to transparency and accountability in this new decision-making process, however, it seems that common sense might be in short supply, although civil society groups and the wider public have tried to make their opinions heard. In October 2009, for example, a 23,000-signature petition calling for the Mekong River’s mainstream to remain free of dams was sent to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

More recently, in September last year, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a petition to Thailand’s Prime Minister asking him to cancel the Xayaburi dam.Listening to public opinion through meaningful consultation would help limit Pandora’s temptation. Yet, whilst the regional decision-making procedures over the Xayaburi dam began three months ago, the MRC only publicly released an ambiguous road map for its implementation late last month.

Remarkably, whilst comment is invited, the project’s documents have not been disclosed to the public, rendering the process opaque, unaccountable and increasingly lacking in credibility.

If built, the Xayaburi dam will forcibly resettle more than 2,100 people and more than 200,000 people would suffer a direct impact on their livelihoods through the loss of fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests. Furthermore, the dam would block a critical fish migration route – including for 23 fish species that travel from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake – and scientists from around the world have concluded that there is no viable mitigation technology.

Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

The myth of Pandora’s box has long been used as a lesson in the dangers of curiosity, temptation and the weaknesses of human nature. The question is, can we heed Pandora’s lesson before it is too late? The decision lies not in the mystical domain of the Greek gods, but in the hands of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect and share the Mekong River’s rich natural resources, rather than undermining them, should be a high priority for the region’s decision-makers.

If, like Pandora, decision-makers choose not to heed the advice of the SEA report and instead open the dam-building box, grave misfortune is certain to follow. It is not too late to prevent the tragedy of these dams from being unleashed. Some boxes are meant to remain unopened.
____________________________________
Ame Trandem is a campaigner with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.

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