"Look I dunno what the hell's really going on in Sayaboury" the late American agricultural economist Charles Alton grumbled. "There is so much conflicting information and lack of transparency; and of course you can't ask, as it's so damned sensitive." That he and many others, also chose not to be identified, is a mark of how 'sensitive' the Sayaboury dam in Laos continues to be.
In last week's stories on the BBC and in The Economist have highlighted how controversial this dam is. Regional discussion forums have also generated a lot of conjectural heat. It is apparent that lies and videotape if not sex, are part of the scene as are elements of a French farce.
The authoritarian Lao government, unused to public scrutiny or questioning, has been at pains to play at transparency, while at the same time offering conflicting accounts of what is and about to happen. Despite evidence to the contrary from Lao and expatriates who have been observing the considerably advanced work, the government has repeated the mantra that work will not go ahead until all environmental studies have been done. Well they were. A strategic environmental study lead by Australian consultant Dr Jeremy Carew Reid recommended a ten year moratorium. The Lao government and dam principle contractor hired a Finnish firm Poyry whose findings gave a warm smile to the project. Poyry was later blacklisted by the World Bank.
The controversial dam will be situated on the Mekong River, south of the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang.
The Mekong is a river of legends, of tales told in conflict. It hosts glorious sunsets, holiday romance, questionable whiskey and slow boats. The Mekong is amongst the world's ten largest rivers and an Asian icon. It runs through some poor nations and the poor parts of wealthy nations like Thailand. Over 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food but it is estimated that around 300 million may also use the brown swirling waters for irrigation, transport and domestic water.
Sacred to most Mekong basin people, damming the Lower Mekong may be like installing a diesel turbine into St Patrick's.
In legal terms work is supposed to have ceased on the dam itself after a deferment was declared by the Lao national government in December 2011 which followed an earlier moratorium in April, 2011. However, a Lao engineer working on another project near the site, reports that work is proceeding. Tellingly, transmission lines are still under construction and the road connection to Thailand almost complete. Andrew Bigham, an agricultural consultant said, "That's the give away. If the dam wasn't going ahead why should they continue building transmission lines?" since then work had proceeded on the coffer dam used to divert the water while the dam is constructed.
The conservation group International Rivers announced that over 22,000 people around the world has signed a petition opposing the Sayaboury dam. Laos, a nominally socialist country retains it secretiveness and paranoid control on information. Virtually all media is government owned and controlled, so the global protest was not reported, nor is it likely to make any difference.
"A ten year moratorium is absolutely critical to relieve the pressure for mainstream damming." said Australian Jeremy Carew Reid in Hanoi. Carew Reid, a prominent environmental professional was team leader of the 2010 MRC commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment. " Ten years was a compromise. The SEA report would have been rejected politically if we had called for a total ban, which evidence suggests would be the preferred option. The member nations were inclined to go for no more than five years. We all felt that ten years was long enough to cool off or disconnect the current wave of developer proposals and financing negotiations."
A lot of informed Lao, are very concerned about the Sayaboury dam, the first of the many dams planned for the Lower Mekong and worry it is a harbinger for more Chinese construction. Many NGO's, natural scientists included, harbour what seems to be a rather naïve assumption that rationality will prevail.
There is sufficient evidence to indicate that the dam represents a complex mélange of elite interests, and a renegotiation of regional power structures. Observers have suggested that being the 'battery of Asia' is far better than being the 'hayseed of Asia', and accords Lao improved regional status. By ensuring energy dependency, Lao could have greater regional leverage and prestige, despite the potential PR disaster of an ecological calamity and public resistance.
Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone wrote in an email ;
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