MEKONG RIVER PROBLEMS: DAMS, DEVELOPMENT, CHINA, LAWLESSNESS AND POLLUTION

PROBLEMS AND POLLUTION ON THE MEKONG RIVER

The Mekong River is threatened by a wide-range of global and local environmental impacts including climate change, pollution, agriculture, logging, the aquarium trade, urban development, and a rapidly rising human population. Harmony Patricio told mongabay.com: Dams are just one piece; there are a lot of other changes happening in the system. Global climate change will affect precipitation and water temperatures in the region. There is industrial pollution, and logging causes increased sedimentation of the river. Mining causes mercury and other chemicals to leach into the river. The human population is growing very quickly in the region, and harvest pressure is increasing. As people get more money, the amount of food they consume per capita also goes up, so not only are there more people, but each individual is going to consume more. A lot of fish are collected for the aquarium trade and sold all over the world. Structural changes to the river, such as creating levees and dykes for flood control, are changing the habitat. Agricultural expansion causes competition for water, and contributes pollution from pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste. And industrial expansion is leading to filling wetlands for urban development. So there are many environmental challenges facing fish in the Mekong. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Many troubles confront the river and its denizens; water extractions, pollution, invasive species, and overfishing also threaten the ecosystem’s health. And the Mekong’s woes mirror those of freshwater systems worldwide, which are increasingly pressured by a growing human population that makes ever-greater water demands. The scale is enormous: people now appropriate more than half of the world’s accessible surface freshwater, leaving precious little for natural systems and other species to thrive. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“In the Mekong River Basin, agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and fertilizers; it also drives deforestation, which causes erosion. Chemical, nutrient, and sediment runoff from farms winds up in the Mekong River Delta, where it degrades water quality, shifts natural nutrient cycles, and alters wildlife habitat. The six nations in the Mekong watershed have initiated a regional program to encourage agricultural development. If not done mindfully, the accelerated development could worsen water quality. [Ibid]

Besides agricultural runoff, pollution from industry and municipalities is also a big problem for freshwater systems. In addition to contributing extra nutrients that promote algal overgrowth, municipal wastewater also carries thousands of chemicals from products used in daily life: cosmetics, soaps, pharmaceuticals, cleaning supplies, and more. Most of it winds up in aquatic systems.

The long-term consequences of dumping so many chemicals in the water are just coming to light. More than 200 species are thought to have adverse reactions to endocrine disruptors—such as estrogen and its chemical mimics—that get into the environment via human and veterinary pharmaceuticals in wastewater and farm runoff. Sightings of frogs with deformities, such as extra legs, mushroomed in the Midwest about a decade ago. Ecologists think chemicals or an interaction between chemicals and parasites could be causing the deformities. Indeed, chemicals in freshwater may be a factor in the alarmingly sharp worldwide decline of amphibians.

Why It Is Important to Conserve the Mekong River

Biologist Harmony Patricio told Mongabay: Given the immense human and development pressures on the Mekong River Basin, it's worth wondering how much of the river's environments can be salvaged, and, if degradation occurs, how many people—dependent on the river for their livelihoods and even their cultural identities—will be harmed? Such questions, which are being asked across the developing world, point to a similar theme: development at what cost? Most countries have been snagged by the idea of development hook, line, and sinker, but their focus remains on big, industrial projects, rather than smarter, smaller, and more locally-driven development. "The world needs to realize that the Mekong is like the Amazon rainforest. It's a global resource of incredible diversity and productivity, and the rest of the world needs to support local governments like Laos so they aren't so pressured to just develop without maintaining the balance of natural resources or aquatic diversity." [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]

“I think the important point is that it's not too late for conservation. They're at a turning point right now in the region. We can look back at hydropower development in places like California and see what things we would have done differently if we had known more about the fish biology and ecology, how we could have balanced fisheries with the use of the river for other purposes. The exciting thing about working in the Mekong is that all these decisions are begin made right now, so there's still time to move forward in a more sustainable way. There are lessons to be learned from the rest of the world about how to maintain your aquatic resources while still developing your economy and producing the electricity that you need. Doing that will require bringing people from all the Mekong countries to work together and collect standard data to keep tabs on the fish to inform management and development. The Mekong Fish Network can play a big part in supporting this type of research. |~|

“It's quite frustrating that there is a lot of money being poured into development in the Mekong, but it's hard to get that same level of commitment for environmental research, monitoring, or conservation. In river basins like the Columbia, billions of dollars are spent every year to study, monitor and manage a few species, mostly salmon. Why is the Columbia more deserving of that research and attention than the Mekong? The world needs to realize that the Mekong is like the Amazon rainforest. It's a global resource of incredible diversity and productivity, and the rest of the world needs to support local governments like Laos so they aren't so pressured to just develop without maintaining the balance of natural resources or aquatic diversity. The local governments are trying to bring their people out of poverty and meet their development goals. The international community needs to take some responsibility and take action for this really unique and precious place, to care about it like we care about the Amazon. Even if you don't live there, it's important to know that places like it exist, that those species and diversity exist somewhere. Many people feel that way about the Amazon—I think we need to think that way about the Mekong too. |~|

Invasive Species in the Mekong River

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “ Biological introductions to waterways, like chemical introductions, are extremely problematic. In their own communities, most species are held in check by natural predators or other environmental constraints. But organisms from afar can crowd, devour, or outcompete native species in their new neighborhoods, and can even change entire ecosystems. Most biological introductions by people are accidental, but some, such as fishes stocked for anglers or plants brought in to stabilize soils, are intentional. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“Mimosa pigra, a spiny shrub native to the Americas and planted abroad as an ornamental or to control erosion, is now one of the world’s worst aquatic invasive species. Once established, it quickly forms dense stands and outcompetes native plants. First spotted on the Mekong in 1979, it spreads in floodwaters and in truckloads of construction sand, and is now devastating parts of the watershed. The mimosa has taken over several irreplaceable wetlands, doubling its area almost every year in some places. Several endangered water birds that depend on native grasses for food and shelter are undergoing population declines as mimosa stands replace their habitat. [Ibid]

“Controlling freshwater invaders and mitigating the damage they cause costs some 9 billion dollars each year in the U.S. alone. Yet the rate of invasions everywhere is on the rise as global commerce, trade, and travel increase. So much for the organisms people add to freshwater systems. What about the ones—too many—that we take out? Overexploitation for food, medicine, and recreation poses a major threat to freshwater birds, crocodiles, fishes, frogs, and turtles, as well as some invertebrates. More than 40 million people rely on the waters of the Mekong River Basin for their protein and income, and they are overfishing numerous species—indeed entire fish assemblages in certain areas—as a result. [Ibid]

Consequences of Irrigation Agriculture on the Mekong River

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, Another destructive practice is crop irrigation, the biggest consumer of freshwater both along the Mekong and worldwide. Most of the water withdrawn from the Mekong goes to irrigating crops, mainly rice. Demand for irrigation water has risen dramatically in the past decade, as new acreage has come under cultivation and new irrigation schemes have enabled farmers to produce a second or third rice crop each year. Removing so much water from freshwater systems can be devastating for wildlife, exacerbating flow problems caused by upstream dams. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“Worldwide, irrigation guzzles about 70 percent of the freshwater people use. To grow food for expanding human populations, people divert rivers, drain inland seas, and extract fossil groundwater collected over thousands of years, often at unsustainable rates. Worse, current agricultural practices often waste as much water as they use: about half the water that flows through conventional irrigation systems never actually reaches a crop plant. A lesser—though still formidable—amount of water is siphoned off to slake the thirst of cities and industry, and when you add it all together, it’s clear that people are using more than their fair share. The Mekong still manages to reach the sea. But at least ten other major rivers, including the Colorado, Ganges, Jordan, Nile, Rio Grande, and Yellow, now regularly run dry before they reach their outlets. [Ibid]

“Agriculture, in addition to being the greatest consumer of freshwater, is also a major polluter—another bane for wildlife. In the Mekong River Basin, agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and fertilizers; it also drives deforestation, which causes erosion. Chemical, nutrient, and sediment runoff from farms winds up in the Mekong River Delta, where it degrades water quality, shifts natural nutrient cycles, and alters wildlife habitat. The six nations in the Mekong watershed have initiated a regional program to encourage agricultural development. If not done mindfully, the accelerated development could worsen water quality. [Ibid]

Helping the Mekong River

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Fortunately, there is much people can do. We can remove obsolete dams and design new ones that take into account natural patterns of river flow. We can reduce the need for massive water extractions by changing the way we grow our food and our cities; more efficient irrigation techniques and increased capture of rainwater, even in wet areas, would help. Conservation may be the best “new” source of water, particularly as climate change begins to shift water supplies globally. We can start to reduce our polluting ways by avoiding harmful chemicals in the first place. In the end, keeping more water in freshwater habitats and maintaining its quality must be a top global priority. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“The future of the Mekong lies in the balance. Today, it remains one of the world’s least-degraded large rivers, but the primacy of economic growth threatens to tip the balance towards decline across the entire river system. Still, there are hopeful signs. Several transboundary initiatives are in the works among the six nations that share the Mekong, which should help balance the needs of people and wildlife. Then there’s the Mekong River Commission. Formed in the 1950s, the commission has moved away from its original focus on dams and irrigation projects toward more holistic management that takes environmental health into consideration. But the MRC is only as strong as the resolve of the governments it represents; China and Myanmar are not members, which may undermine its effectiveness in protecting the basin. [Ibid]

“Internationally, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, with 155 signatory nations, guides conservation of 1,675 globally important wetland ecosystems. As with the Mekong River Commission, however, Ramsar’s strength rests on the decisions of its signatories: it has no enforcement mechanism. It should come as no surprise, then, that—as with conservation choices in general—most decision makers have consistently chosen short-term economic gain over the long-term health of aquatic systems. [Ibid]

Development of the Mekong River

Development of the Mekong River is still minimal but large amounts of water that flow into it are being siphoned off by large dams, small dams, canals and irrigation projects along it tributaries. The Mekong and its tributaries have the hydroelectric potential of all the oil in Indonesia. A large amounts of development has already by done. More than 50 dams built by the Asian Development Bank have built on the Mekong in recent decades. There are plans for many more.

The Mekong flows through some poorest countries and regions in the world. For many the countries that border it development of the river is vital to the development of the country. The river has been protected over the years by a lack of development, and more recently by wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The benefits of development on the Mekong River are unevenly distributed. Despite abundant rainfall throughout the rgeion, mre than 80 million people lack reliable access to safe drinking water. One in five residents live below the poverty line.

The Mekong River Commission (MBC) is an organization with representatives from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam committed to water utilization, basin development and environmental protection. Myanmar and China are not members just observers. In October 2011, China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar signed a security agreement to crack down on cross-border crime and secure transportation targeted in part at Golden Triangle drug trafficking.

China, the Mekong River and Southeast Asia

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Beijing has invested heavily in the Mekong as part of a strategy to expand its economic and diplomatic influence in Southeast Asia, dynamiting some sections to allow bigger ships to pass, streamlining import and export procedures, and improving shipping support facilities. The Mekong is an increasingly lucrative trade route. Cargo volumes between Thailand's Chiang Saen and ports in China's Yunnan province have tripled since 2004, with about 300,000 tonnes of mainly agricultural goods now transported along the Mekong every year, Mekong River Commission statistics show. But as Chinese influence grows, it is encroaching on a region dominated for decades by a much more profitable trade: narcotics. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“New patrols by Chinese gunboats, ostensibly conducted with Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, are a major expansion in Beijing's role in regional security, extending its law enforcement beyond its borders, down a highly strategic waterway and into Southeast Asia. They come as the U.S. re-engages with Asia, where Thailand is one of its oldest military allies. "This tough new China policy toward any obstacles to their Mekong commerce could in future be met with charges of gunboat diplomacy," said Paul Chambers, an American academic who co-authored "Cashing In Across The Golden Triangle" with Myanmar economist Thein Swe. "In the future, some Mekong states may increasingly turn to the U.S. to offset China's influence." /=/

“Laos has set up a special economic zone on the Mekong River on its border with China. “The area it occupied was so large and strategically located that it might one day be used as a Chinese military base, a Thai official in Chiang Rai said. That might be far-fetched. But the Golden Triangle SEZ and similar schemes elsewhere in Laos and Myanmar "signify that China is prepared to remain entrenched in the Greater Mekong Subregion," said Chambers. "They provide an exit for southwestern China to entrepots in Myanmar and Thailand, and then to markets abroad. Such schemes in fact need security to protect them." /=/

Impact of China on the Mekong River

China wants to develop the Mekong River to exploit its hydroelectric potential and to help the impoverished Yunnan Province. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “China's ravenous appetite for hydroelectric power at home and its thrust southward into Southeast Asia in search of trade is changing the very character of the Mekong. This is true not only in China itself, but also for the five nations and 60 million rural people downstream for whom the great river serves as their life's blood....China has completed two dams. It is pushing ahead with three more and has three others on the drawing board. Just about 70 miles away from here, China has blasted reefs and rocks at the border of Laos and Myanmar to clear the way for its trading vessels to reach new markets deep into Laos. The effects of the river projects that serve China's colossal upstream ambitions have been visible for several years, but are growing more worrying, say conservationists and those who live on the river. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 19, 2005]

Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - have settled into an era of relative peace and have shed their old fears of China, indeed, are currying favor. Booming Thailand is seeking more trade with China. Impoverished Laos and Cambodia want China's aid to kick-start their economies. Myanmar shares China's passion for hydropower to supply future growth. "China seems to be doing this with impunity," said Aviva Imhof, director of Southeast Asia programs at International Rivers Network, a nongovernmental group in Berkeley, Calif. "The Mekong is slowly being strangled to death. Why aren't the downstream governments challenging China's activities?"

The concern extends beyond environmental groups and fishermen. Ted Osius, until recently the State Department's regional environmental affairs officer and once a senior White House adviser to Vice President Al Gore, suggests that an unchecked China could turn the Mekong into an ecological disaster, akin to the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. "China has a poor record on river protection," Mr. Osius said in a speech in Bangkok, noting that 80 percent of the Yangtze's historic flood plain has already been cut off by a dike and levee system.

Today China's economic and political power along the Mekong is unrivaled. More than ever, it is being strengthened and extended through growing trade and diplomatic ties and its use of new multilateral tools, like the Asian Development Bank. The bank, a major lender for poverty alleviation, was until now dominated by Japan. China contributed to its capital fund for the first time in 2004 - gaining more power over how the bank's loans are distributed. The impact was immediate. The bank added a new vice president, Jin Liqun, a former deputy finance minister in Beijing. Most important, the bank's grand plan for roads, bridges and a telecommunications network to knit southern China together with the five other Mekong River countries - a plan 10 years in abeyance - got a quick boost.

Long-stalled work was suddenly under way on a 152-mile road from Yunnan Province across untamed territory to Houey Xai, a Laotian river town just a few hundred yards across the Mekong from Sri Sumwantha's village. Although relatively short, the road provides the vital link to China. A bridge is also in the works to replace the little ferryboats now used to cross the river. By the end of the decade, China could be connected by roads that cross the Mekong, head down to Bangkok and then run on to Malaysia and finally Singapore. "China's donation gives them a seat at the donor's table," said Bruce Murray, the bank's representative in Beijing. "When they give, donors always have a certain agenda."

China's new clout can be felt on other important projects as well. One of the most controversial is a $1.3 billion dam proposed for the Theun River, a major Mekong tributary in Laos, a plan that has been fought over for more than a decade. The World Bank is expected to approve loan guarantees for the dam in March. American diplomats say they have quietly supported the World Bank's role - its first dam project in a decade - for fear that otherwise China will step in. "The Laotians have told the World Bank that if the bank does not guarantee the dam and make it go ahead, they will turn to the Chinese," an American official said. The United States is reluctant to have China build and manage one of Southeast Asia's biggest dams, he said.

China, diplomats and conservationists say, would be much less fussy about the dam's impact than the consortium seeking World Bank support, led by Electricity Generating Authority Thailand (EGAT) and France's state-owned Electricité de France.

Dams on the Mekong River

There are 15 dams on the Mun River and other tributaries of the Mekong River in Thailand. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams reported a significant decline in fish caught after the Pak Mun dam was built in Thailand. As of 2005 there were seven dams on tributaries of the Mekong River in Laos and seven more planned.

Eleven dams are proposed for the Lower Mekong Mainstream. Environmentalists predict the dam “would irreversibly alter” the Mekong River’s ecology, affecting water levels and fish migration in the entire basin. An additional 77 dams are planned for the river by 2030.

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Dams are a dramatic example of a human activity that degrades freshwater ecosystems. Built to control flooding, store water, and generate electricity, dams have numerous ecologically disastrous side effects. They impede the movement and migration of aquatic species; some kill animals in turbines; and they change the timing and amount of flow downriver, which interferes with the reproductive cycles of fishes, frogs, and water birds that depend on seasonal flooding. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“About a dozen hydroelectric dams in the Mekong River Basin provide the bulk of the region’s energy—and another hundred or so are in the planning stages. To date, China has built two dams across the upper mainstream, but there are none across the lower mainstream—in fact, the Mekong is one of the world’s few major rivers with so few mainstream dams. That may soon change: local governments view the free-flowing Mekong as an underutilized economic resource. Worldwide, an average of two large dams have gone up each day for the past fifty years, and today there are more than 45,000 dams taller than forty-five feet. Fortunately, increased awareness of the environmental problems they cause has contributed to a slowdown of large-dam construction in the United States and Europe. In the Mekong River Basin and elsewhere, however, big dams continue to rise. [Ibid]

Overall there are relatively few dams in Southeast Asia. Proponents of dams point out that reservoirs help broaden the availability of water throughout the year, which is especially useful in providing water for crops during the dry season.

Chinese Dams on the Upper Mekong

There are plans to build 100 dams in Sichuan and Yunnan in the Three Parallel Rivers area, where three great rivers—the Yangtze, Mekong, and the Salween---flow parallel to one another within a 55 mile band, divided by high mountain ridges. The plan calls for more than a dozen dams larger than the Grand Coulee dam and one that will be the tallest in the world. Even though the dams are in remote mountainous areas they are set to displace 1 million people.

China is currently involved in building large dams on the upper Mekong to provide electricity, control floods and provide water for irrigation. Some have been built. Some are being built. More than a dozen are in the planning stages. The $4 billion Xiaowan Dam is currently being built. When it is finished it will be the world’s tallest dam, over 300 meters (100 stories) high and create a reservoir 169 kilometers long. Only the Three Gorges dam will be larger.

China is planning eight Mekong dams totaling over 16,000 MW, of which three have been across the upper reaches of the river. Four are under construction, potentially impacting riverside communities in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Dams that have already been built include the $600 million, 30-story-high Dachaoshan Dam in Dachaoshan Gorge, which created a 88-kilometer-long reservoir that filled up in just five days; the 35-story-high Manwan Dam, 100 kilometers south of Dali in Yunnan, with 40 foot tunnels through the mountains and a 1500 megawatt electricity generating capacity; and the Jinghong Dam.

Chinese dams on the Mekong River from north to south (year completed or targeted for completion, people displaced: 1) Gonguaoqiao (2010, 4,600); 2) Xiaowan (2013, 32,700); 3) manwan (1996, 7,600); 4) Dachaoshan (2003, 6,000); 5) Nuozhadu (2017, 24,000); 6) Jinghong (2010, 2,300); 7) Ganlanba (unknown, 50); 8) Mengsong (unknown, 230). [Source: New York Times]

In the Three Parallel Rivers area there are plans for major four dams along the Jinshajiang River, which would generate twice the power of the Three Gorges dam. The muddy Jinshajiang fills the Yangtze with half its silt. There are plans to build 13 dams on the Nu River, which flows into Thailand and Burma. The project would produce the largest cascade dam and generate more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. Another proposed dam on the Yangtze will submerge Leaping Tiger Gorge.

Environmentalist oppose these projects because of the ecological impact they will have. Thailand and Burma oppose them too because they have their own plans to build dams on the river. The Nu River project is slated to be built through an area that has been declared a World Heritage Site UNESCO and biodiversity hot spot and has been described as “maybe the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem in the world” because of the variety of unique flora and fauna found there. The Nu is one of only two free flowing rivers left in China.

Plans for the dams were suspended in 2004 but revived in 2005. The projects are widely seen as ground zero for conflict between development-minded officials and environment-minded ones. Surprisingly much of the discussion revolves around following the law. A Chinese government environmental review released in 2006 recommended that dam projects be reviewed and an effort made to limit their damage and decrease the number of people relocated. See China

Dams in Laos on Mekong Tributaries

Laos has over 60,000 cubic meters or renewable water resources, and with its small population more hydroelectric potential per capita than any nation in Asia. Most Laotian dams are on tributaries of the Mekong River. Half the Mekong River’s hydroelectric potential lies within Laos. Much of the electricity produced by Laotian dams is exported to Thailand on power lines over the Mekong River and is a major source income for the Laos government. Three quarters of the $5 billion pledged between 1988 and 1996 by foreign investors to Laos went to hydroelectric projects to supply Thailand with energy.

Nam Ngum Dam is a large dam built outside Vientiane built with the help of Japan, West Germany, India, Switzerland, OPEC and the World Bank. It has five generators and produces 150 megawatts of electricity. When it began operation in the 1980s, Laos only needed 30 megawatts, or 20 percent of the power generated by the dam , to run its dozen or so factories. The remaining 80 percent of the power was exported to Thailand. At the time, Thais paid $30 million for the power which was half of Laos's hard currency income. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

The $260 million Theun-Hiboun dam in the mountains of central Laos is the largest hydro-electric project completed thus far in Laos. Finished in 1998, it is located just upriver from where the Theun River joins the Kading River and accounts for two thirds of Laos’s power exports. The dam however has disputed fish migration patterns and fishermen complain they catch much fewer fish now than before the dam was built.

The Laotian government has made plans to build a couple dozen dams on tributaries of the Mekong River and export the electricity to Thailand and Vietnam as a way to make money. Laos hopes money from the dams will improve the economy, help lift the country out of poverty and reduce its reliance on foreign aid. One Laotian official told AP, “We need this to eradicate poverty, Thus is the only way out.” The Asian financial crisis lowered projections on the amount of electricity that Thailand and Vietnam would need in the future. When Thailand and Vietnam said they didn’t need the electricity for a while the projects were put on hold.

The Nam Mang 3 Hydroelectric Project is a $200 million dam project being built by Chinese firms with Chinese migrant labor and loans from the Chinese government. The Pa Mong dam is a $2.6 billion project that if built would produce a reservoir that would displace more than 75,000 people.

Nam Theun 2 Dam

The Electricity Authority of Thailand and the Laotian government built the $1.2 billion Nam Theun 2 dam and hydroelectric plant project on the Nam Theun River, a tributary of the Mekong River that flows across the Nakai Plateau, a massive flat-topped mountain in Laos. The dam is 48 meters high and produces a 450 square kilometers reservoir. Water is directed through a four-kilometer-long tunnel and then cascade down a 348-meter vertical shaft bored through the side of a mountains to four massive electricity-generating turbines. It was the biggest investment ever in Laos.

The largest shareholder, Electricite de France, has a 35 percent share in the project. The other main investors are the Laotian government and two Thai companies, The Thai utility plans to buy 90 percent of the electricity produced by the plant for 25 years for $5.6 billion.. This works out to $221 million a year, or 12 percent of Laos’s GDP. International investors provided 70 percent of the funds for the projects. They wanted the World Bank to provide a guarantee protecting their investments in Laos, which has a weak legal system and is notorious for corruption.

The Nam Theun 2 dam has been plagued by problems. It has been criticized by environmentalist, was delayed by the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, which reduced demand for electricity in Thailand. In 2003, the largest shareholder, Electricite de France, withdrew from the project. It had a 35 percent share of the project.

Environmentalist complain that a reservoir created by the dam submerges 450 square kilometers of one of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia, causing severe environmental degradation, destroying fish habitats, generating uncontrolled logging and displacing thousands of people. The Nakai plateau has some of the largest population of tigers, Siamese corcodile. Banteng wild cattle, and Asian elephants in Laos and is also home to the recently discovered saola and muntjac.

About 4,500 people were displaced by the Nam Theun 2 dam. Most were subsistence farmers from villages with no electricity and running water. They were supposed to be moved to new and better housing and taught skills like poultry farming so they could raise their income levels. Similar promises were made to hill tribes displaced by the Houay Ho dam in 1994. They received too little land and were forced to migrate to the cities to make a living. It is widely believed that much of the money earned from the dam ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials not the poor people it is supposed to help. A logging company owned by the military harvested 1 million cubic meters of old growth trees in preparation for the project.

Laos Approves Xayaburi 'Mega' Dam on the Mekong

In November 2012, Jonah Fisher of the BBC reported: “Laos has given the go-ahead to build a massive dam on the lower Mekong river, despite opposition from neighbouring countries and environmentalists. Countries downstream from the $3.5 billion dam at Xayaburi fear it will affect fish stocks and the livelihoods of millions.Xayaburi is being built by a Thai company with Thai money - and almost all of the electricity has been pre-sold to Thailand. [Source: BBC, Jonah Fisher, November 6, 2012 <>]

“Countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam point to a report last year that said the project should be delayed while more research was done on the dam's environmental impact. Up to now, Laos had promised not to press ahead while those concerns remained. Vietnam and Cambodia object that that Laos has not followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Under its terms, the countries that share the Mekong agree to prior consultations on the possible cross-border impact of any development on the river before deciding to proceed. Laos believes it has just done that.Cambodia and Vietnam expressed concerns about the dam's impact on fish migration and the flow of sediment downstream. So the Laos authorities brought in their own contractors and now say the problems have been solved. <>

“Four dams already exist in the narrow gorges of the Upper Mekong in China but until now there have been none on the slower-moving lower reaches of the river. Laos deputy energy minister Viraphonh Virawong said work on the Xayaburi dam itself would begin in November 2012 and hoped it would be the first of many dams on the river. "I am very confident that we will not have any adverse impacts on the Mekong river," Mr Viraphonh told the BBC. "But any development will have changes. We have to balance between the benefits and the costs." <>

The dam will cut across a stretch of the river flanked by forested hills, cliffs and hamlets where ethnic minority groups reside in Xayaburi province. China has placed three dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong and more are planned. But otherwise the mainstream flows free. The Laos government, which hopes to see significant economic gain from the hydroelectric project, The massive dam will provide 95 percent of its energy production to Thailand.

Luke Hunt wrote in The Diplomat, “Thai general contracting and infrastructure development group Ch Karnchang — through its 50 percent-owned subsidiary Xayaburi Power Co — has a 29-year concession to operate the dam's 1,285 megawatt power plant, as well as assurances from Thailand that it will purchase about 95 percent of the electricity generated. Laos has faced unprecedented international scrutiny over the past year, initially with the Xayaburi Dam, then with its massive borrowing program primarily with China to fund an ambitious infrastructure program. [Source: Luke Hunt, The Diplomat, January 23, 2013]

Mr Viraphonh said he believed that concerns about fish migration and sediment flow had been addressed thanks to modifications to the original dam design costing more than $100 million. Sediment will be allowed out of the bottom of the dam periodically through a flap and lifts, and ladders will help the fish travel upstream. "We can sense that Vietnam and Cambodia now understand how we have addressed their concerns. We did address this properly with openness and put all our engineers at their disposal. We are convinced we are developing a very good dam," Mr Viraphonh said.” <>

Objections to the Xayaburi 'Mega' Dam

Critics of the dam say many of the modifications to it are untested and the decision to proceed amounts to a huge experiment on one of the world's great rivers. Jonah Fisher of the BBC reported: “Under the terms of a longstanding agreement on the Mekong, there must be consultation between countries on any development on the river. The US State Department issued a statement expressing concern, despite its recognition of the "important role" dams play in economic growth. "The extent and severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an ecosystem that provides food security and livelihoods for millions are still unknown," it said. [Source: BBC, Jonah Fisher, November 6, 2012 <>]

“Environmental campaign group International Rivers said Laos' promise to cooperate with neighbouring countries had never been genuine. "The project has always continued on schedule and was never actually delayed," the group's Southeast Asia policy coordinator, Kirk Herbertson, told the BBC. "Construction on the project is continuing now because the wet season has ended, not because the environmental studies are completed." He said experts agreed it was doubtful that fish passages could work on the Mekong and "on the sediments issue, Laos is also jumping to conclusions". "Laos is playing roulette with the Mekong, and trying to pass its studies off as legitimate science." <>

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “In late 2011, the four Mekong River nations—Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia—announced that the dam would not go ahead until more research was conducted to allay concerns. Friction over the dam has created a rift between the Laos government and Thailand on the one side and Vietnam and Cambodia on the other, who fear the dam will hurt fish populations and river nutrients. The promised research has not come to light. "The Xayaburi Dam is the first of a cascade of devastating mainstream dams that will severely undermine the region’s development efforts. The food security and jobs of millions of people in the region are now on the line," Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for the NGO International Rivers said in a press statement. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, November 07, 2012 ><]

The U.S. State Department also raised concern about the approval, which will force the eviction of 2,100 local people. Environmentalists also contend that the dam could result in the extinction of dozens of freshwater fish species, including the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), which weighs up to 600 pounds (270 kilograms). Modifications to the dam may not large enough to benefit the Mekong giant catfish. ><

Associated Press reported: “Opponents say the dam in central Laos would open the door for a building spree of as many as 10 other dams on the 3,000-mile river in Laos and Cambodia, degrading its fragile ecology and affecting the livelihoods of residents who rely on its fish and its water for irrigation. Environmentalists say it would block nutrients for downstream farming and even foul Vietnam's rice bowl by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta. [Source: Matthew Pennington, AP, November 5, 2012]

Cambodia and Vietnam Raise Objections to the Xayaburi Dam

Luke Hunt wrote in The Diplomat, “Vietnam and Cambodia have finally found their voice. After months of obfuscating their position on the Lao government’s insistence on constructing the Xayaburi Dam and blocking the main stream of the Mekong River, leaders from both countries have pushed diplomatic niceties to the side and finally tackled Vientiane on the issue. The refreshing shift in political tact came on the final day of a meeting among member countries in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), in which leaders from Vientiane could have been forgiven for thinking they had perhaps outfoxed their counterparts in Hanoi and Phnom Penh. [Source: Luke Hunt, The Diplomat, January 23, 2013 \=\]

“Laos reached an agreement with Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in 2011 to suspend construction of the U.S.$3.5 billion dam while independent studies were to be made on fish migration patterns and the possible threat posed by the dam to food security. However, Vientiane ignored what amounted to a moratorium, Thai construction companies went to work immediately at the site and plans for further dams were released. Meanwhile, the Lao government insisted its citizens will prosper through the sale of electricity to neighboring countries produced by hydropower. \=\

“At the MRC meeting, Cambodia demanded that all construction be immediately halted and argued that Laos had misinterpreted previous agreements. Meanwhile, Vietnam insisted that no dams be constructed until an agreed upon independent study is completed. Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong attempted to defend his country’s stance, which seems to have the support of Thai construction companies, Chinese lenders and Lao politicians, but few others further afield.” \=\

Local People Resettled to Make Way for the Xayaburi Dam

Avigail M. Olarte of the Asia News Network wrote: “To Sysavan, the river is his playground. Armed with nets and bamboo baskets, the boy rushes to the riverbank every afternoon after school. Whatever fish he catches will feed his family who has lived by the Mekong River for years. But then his father tells him he would have to let go, as his village must be cleared, bulldozed and crushed to the ground to make way for the multimillion dam in Xayaburi in northern Laos. “My father told me we will have to move when the dam construction starts. I don’t know why but I don’t want to move. I don’t know how to find food there,” Sysavan says. [Source: Avigail M. Olarte, Asia News Network, July 27, 2012 *-*]

In June 2012 “Sysavan’s village was stripped down, some 300 residents robbed of their homes and relocated to a new community 35 kilometres away, where there is no farm to till, and no river to fish from. Despite protests, Sysavan’s village is the first of the 15 communities to be resettled for the construction of the Xayaburi dam. International Rivers reported the project would directly affect 202,000 living near the dam, and “jeopardise the lives and food security” of tens of millions more in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. *-*

“Interviews by the Living River Siam revealed villagers around the dam had not been properly consulted, with no sufficient information provided, and no written record of promised compensation. As a result, Sysavan and the other villagers are now housed in half- finished, leaky wooden structures, with little or no electricity and water. Also, not everyone has received the cash compensation promised to them for their loss of home and land, a team of visitors said. With no jobs to help them get by, each person is supposed to get 120,000 kip (US$14) a month. “But that’s not enough to buy them food. Before, they would just go out the sea and fish or take vegetables from their farms,” Teerapong Pomun, director of Living River Siam, told AsiaNews. On act of equal defiance, he said at least four households have now gone back to the old village where they can freely live, in the meantime at least. *The boy’s name has been changed to protect his identity. “ *-*

Vietnam Plans Mekong Mega-Dam in Laos

In December 2007, AFP reported: “Energy-hungry Vietnam is planning to build a two-billion-dollar mega-dam on the Mekong river of Laos and to construct several other large hydropower projects in the neighbouring country.Vietnam's main energy company expects to wrap up a feasibility study by April for a dam near Luang Prabang, the former Lao royal capital, that would dwarf existing dams in the landlocked country, state media has reported. [Source: AFP, December 24, 2007 >>>]

“Vietnam -- whose economic growth surged to 8.4 percent this year and power demand is rising at twice that rate -- has few rivers left to dam and is looking at the hydropower potential of its communist ally Laos. The Luang Prabang dam, slated for operation in 2014, would have a capacity of 1,410 MW, under a memorandum of understanding Laos signed with the PetroVietnam Power Corporation in mid-October, a Lao government website says. >>>

“Vietnamese companies in Laos also plan to start building the 400-million-dollar 290 MW Xekaman I dam next year, set for completion by 2012, state media has reported. Another dam, the 270-million-dollar, 250 MW Xekaman 3, is now under construction and set to transfer power across the border by 2009, while three more dam projects are now being studied, said the Vietnam News Agency.” >>>

Consequences of Dams on the Mekong River

The dams have displaced thousands of people, many of them ethnic minorities, and disrupted normal water patterns and fishing migration routes and reduced the flow of soil-enriching sediment. The Cambodian government has expressed its concern that development projects on the Mekong River could caused the Tonle Sap lake to dry up. The Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest lake and an important source of fish for Cambodians.

The Mekong fell to record low in the dry season of 2004. River boats were stranded. In Cambodia the fish catch fell 50 percent after it declined 15 percent the previous year. Some blamed the problem on dam construction and the release of water to allow Chinese ships to navigate the river. Drought, dams and overfishing also played a role.

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Radical fluctuations are natural to the Mekong, and whole communities—human and wild—are adapted to its periodic floods and droughts. The river swells when rainfall rushes down its tributaries and shrinks again in drier weather. But the rise and fall of the Mekong is increasingly dictated by energy use in China and Thailand. Upriver hydroelectric dams dampen the fluctuations and change the timing of floods and dry spells, affecting water-dependent wildlife hundreds of miles away. The extent of those changes is likely to grow as more dams, scheduled for construction, make their mark on the river. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

Flow patterns altered by dams and other projects could prevent those species from reproducing. In addition to building dams, countries along the Mekong are destroying or modifying rapids and other natural features to improve navigation—changes that will disturb critical fish habitats and alter downstream water flow.

A study in Global Environmental Change found that if the 11 currently planned hydroelectric projects are built on the Mekong River, fish populations could fall by 16 percent. According to the paper, the "results suggest that basic food security is potentially at a high risk of disruption." [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, November 07, 2012 ><]

Consequences of Dams on Mekong River Fishermen

Reporting from Chiang Khong, Thailand, Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, For countless generations, fishermen along the Mekong River have passed their lore and way of life from father to son: the rhythms of the water, the habits of the many kinds of fish, the best nets and traps to use to survive and prosper. But Sri Sumwantha, 70, one of the old men of Asia's majestic river, has left his delicate pirogue tied up at the riverbank for longer stretches than usual. Through green bamboo stands, he has watched the caramel-colored current slow and surge unpredictably and his catch diminish. Now, he worries how much longer his family can live off the river. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 19, 2005]

The fish species found in this stretch of the Mekong in northern Thailand dwindled from 100 to only 88 last year, said Sayan Khamnueng, a researcher with the Southeast Asia River Network, an environmental group. Water levels and temperatures have fluctuated widely, threatening the river environment and disrupting the livelihoods of the fishermen and others who depend on the $2 billion annual catch of migratory fish.

For the fishermen, their revered river, once nearly untouched and steady in its moods, has turned into a fickle sea. "In the past the river was up and down like nature - every three or four days up and down," said Tan Inkew, 72, a fisherman who lives in Meung Kan village. "Now the river is like the sea - up and down, up and down very quickly."

Protests by Mr. Tan and other fishermen helped persuade the Thai government to stop China from blasting the rapids in Thai waters near his home, between the port of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong. "We protested outside the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok," Mr. Tan recalled. "We told them to stop blasting - and if they don't stop, we'll fight them." Still, he worries about the impact of China's dams as well. His recalled how his son was recently out on the water for nine hours but "did not catch one thing." While Mr. Tan and his neighbors may have scored a small victory, clearly China cannot be kept at bay for long.

Mr. Sayan, of the Southeast Asian River Network, said fishermen had stopped selling their fish at the main market in Chiang Rai. "They don't have enough," he said. In extreme cases, the fishermen have given up and become laborers, unloading the trading vessels from China that dock at Chiang Saen, laden with fruits and vegetables, electronics and cheap garments. "As laborers they become impoverished and are miserable," said Chainarong Srettachau, the director of the river network. Some fishermen have begun supplementing their incomes with crops. But crops are being hurt, too. China's upstream dams are also holding back as much as 50 percent of the fertile silt that is essential to the soil and that normally flows down river, according to conservationists.

Erosion is also worsening. At Pak Ing, a small village near Chiang Khong, fishermen pointed to a 12-foot-high wall of exposed soil, a muddy mini-cliff where the water, flowing faster because of blasting of the rapids, has cut into once gently sloping riverbanks. The next step will be to erect concrete banks to hold back the land. Farther downstream, the effects may be even more severe. In Cambodia, an intricate ecology and age-old economy depend on the ebb and flow of the great lake fed by the Mekong, Tonle Sap, which can swell fourfold during the rainy season. The rhythm of life is built around the seasonal tides and the bounty that the waters provide.

The fish catch dropped by almost 50 percent last year, according to the Mekong River Commission. In many areas, the low catches were caused by the sudden fluctuations that occurred when dams in China released water to allow easier passage for trading vessels, said Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and an expert on the Mekong. The water from the dams is also much colder than the water downstream, affecting the fish, which are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, Mr. Osborne wrote last year in a paper titled "River at Risk" for the Lowy Institute, a public policy group in Sydney. Large species in particular had fallen off, he said. The outlook for the river and its vast ecosystem was not promising, he added.

"Because of the enormous imbalance of power between China and the downstream countries," he said, "it is highly unlikely that there will be a halt to China's projected dam building program on the Mekong." But Mr. Chainarong of the river network was less pessimistic. "Two or three years ago, people said we would never be able to stop China blasting the Mekong inside Thailand," he said. "But we did." "One good thing," he noted, "is that China doesn't want to have conflict downstream. That's the challenge. The situation is up to China: does it want to go friendly or hostile?"

Mekong Dam Spree Could Create Regional Food Crisis

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “Fish are a hugely important protein source for many people around the world. This is no more evident than along the lower Mekong River delta where an estimated 48 million people depend directly on the river for food and livelihoods. But now a new study in Global Environmental Change cautions that 11 planned hydroelectric dams in the region could cut vital fish populations by 16 percent while putting more strain on water and land resources. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com , August 27, 2012, Orr, S., et al. Dams on the Mekong River: Lost fish protein and the implications for land and water resources. Global Environmental Change. 2012 ^^^]

"The Mekong countries are striving for economic growth, and they see hydropower as a driver of that growth. But they must first fully understand and take into account the true economic and social value of a free-flowing Mekong," says co-author Stuart Orr, freshwater manager with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). ^^^

Economically, the 11 planned dams could cost the Mekong countries—Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—nearly half a billion US dollars annually in lost fish catch. Replacing the lost fish protein with protein from livestock—such as cattle, pigs and poultry—would also require an additional 4,863 square kilometers (3,021 square miles) of land, according to the study. Water requirements would also need to boosted to irrigate crops for the livestock. For example, the 11 dams would require Cambodia to consume 29-64 percent more water for its agriculture, and Laos would need 12-24 percent more. ^^^

Hydro energy plans for the Mekong don't stop with the Xayaburi or the other planned ten dams. An additional 77 dams are planned for the river by 2030. The full impacts of all 88 projects, according to the study, would cut fish by nearly 40 percent. It could increase land needed for livestock to 24,188 square kilometers (15,029 miles), or an area the size of Vermont, to make up the protein lost by the dwindling fish supply. The full hydroelectric plans would force Cambodia to increase water supply by 42-150 percent and Laos by 18-56 percent in order to feed new livestock. The researchers write that their "results suggest that basic food security is potentially at a high risk of disruption." ^^^

Impact of Dams on Mekong River Fish Species

Harmony Patricio told mongabay.com: “The strategic environmental assessment for mainstem dams that was commissioned by the Mekong River Commission suggests that mainstem dams like the Xayaburi could block the migrations of some rare or economically valuable species. It could alter the species composition to favor fish species better adapted to a reservoir environment. The fish that can withstand lower oxygen levels or higher temperatures and can survive in a reservoir will do better than fish that need the free-flowing river environment or that are highly migratory. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]

“Also, no one knows for sure where the giant catfish spawns, but based on local ecological knowledge, people believe they spawn upstream of the Xayaburi Dam location. It would be a problem if the giant catfish can't make it past the dam, but they've already stopped showing up to these traditional spawning grounds—they've already been affected by changes to the river. Maybe they will be able to spawn somewhere downstream of the dam. The dam could also trap sediment that is very important for maintaining downstream habitat in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Ultimately, the Xayaburi is likely to have some impacts on fish, but there are plans for many other dams as well. |~|

“The impact is really going to depend on the development scenario: whether all of those dams are built in the locations where they're planned now, and how they're built. There are many alternative scenarios that could reduce impacts on fish and still generate a substantial amount of electricity. Overall, the cumulative effect will probably be a reduction in the number of migratory species and a shift in the species composition to favor species that do well in reservoirs. Right now, we know more than a third (38 percent) of the total Mekong fish harvest consists of migratory species. If the biomass of the reservoir species doesn't scale up to replace the migratory species, we could see a decline in total harvest or productivity. |~|

“The sediment trapping could reduce the productivity of the marine fishery off the coast of the delta and the delta itself could suffer land loss from erosion, which might affect rice production. People also talk about how dams will change the river's flow regime. Right now the Mekong has a very dynamic regime, extremely high flows in the rainy season, and very low flows in the dry season. This difference in flows is one reason why people think the river so productive. It causes the flooding of the Tonle Sap, creates floodplain habitat, and the potential for riverside gardens. A lot reservoirs and dams will reduce the variability of the flow regime. The dry season flows will be higher and the wet season flows might be a bit lower. There are a lot of questions about how this will affect the system. |~|

Mitigating the Impact of the Mekong River Dams on Fish

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “There are ways to mitigate the damage of the dams, such as building massive bypass channels around the dam. In addition, officials could look at other power-generation technologies that wouldn't involve damming the river.[Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]

Patricio told Mongabay: “There are definitely ways to design dams to minimize their impacts on fish. You might have to sacrifice a bit of the power generation capacity, but maybe it will be worth the gain you get from maintaining fish populations. One strategy they're looking at now for dams on the Mekong mainstem is building big bypass channels, basically creating a new river channel that goes around the dam. It's obviously not as big and wide as the natural river, but it provides fish with a more natural riverine environment, rather than trying to build an elaborate fish ladder or elevator system over the dam itself. I think that approach is probably the most "fish-friendly." |~|

“It depends on what kind of fish you're talking about! Fish passage is a challenge because there are more than 100 highly migratory fish species in the Mekong, ranging in size from less than 10 centimeters up to 300 centimeters. Obviously, their swimming and jumping capabilities are going to be really different. In addition, huge volumes of fish move at the same time in the Mekong, and it's hard to engineer something that can accommodate such a huge quantity of fish to pass a dam. |~|

“There are also ways of generating hydropower without making big dams. Some cool research is looking into building small turbines that are bolted to the riverbed, like free-standing barrels. Screens protect the fish from the turbines, and there is lots of space for fish to pass around. People are also designing mesh grids with tiny turbines, maybe the size of a cube of ice. You put that on the substrate, and the little turbines combine to produce a fair amount of electricity, although they can't generate the amount of electricity that the large dams can. I would say the most fish-friendly approach would be to use these small-scale, alternative technologies that maybe can't produce as much power per facility, but you could spread lots of them out in places that aren't essential for spawning or feeding. |~|

Chinese Gambling Haven on the Mekong River in Laos

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “On the Laotian bank of the Mekong, clearly visible from where the ill-fated Chinese ships stopped, an enormous crown rises above the tree line. It belongs to a casino, part of a burgeoning gambling empire hacked from the Laotian jungle by a Chinese company called Kings Romans in English and, in Chinese, Jin Mu Mian ("golden kapok"), after the kapok trees that carpet the area with flame-red flowers. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Kings Romans controls a 102-sq-km (39-sq-mile) special economic zone (SEZ) which occupies seven kilometer (four miles) of prime Mekong riverbank overlooking Myanmar and Thailand. The company's chairman is also the SEZ's president: Zhao Wei, a casino tycoon who hails from a poor peasant family in China's northeastern Heilongjang province. Zhao was unable to talk to Reuters because he was preparing to welcome Laotian president Choummaly Sayasone to a Chinese New Year festival, said Li Linjun, Kings Romans tourism manager. Li offered a tour of a Special Economic Zone into which he said the company had so far sunk $800 million./=/

“Fountains and golden statues flank the main road from the pier to the casino. Across the road is a banner in Chinese exhorting people to "join hands to beat drugs." Two gargantuan lion statues guard the entrance to the casino. Inside, beyond the security gates, a marble staircase lit by a giant chandelier sweeps up to a golden statue of a nameless, bare-chested Roman emperor. The ceilings are decorated with reproductions of Renaissance frescoes. Under construction nearby is a karaoke and massage complex, fashioned after a Chinese temple. The resort also offers a shooting range, complete with AK47 and M16 assault rifles, and a petting zoo. /=/

“An average of about 1,000 people visit the casino every day, said Li. (Gambling is illegal in both Laos and China.) But Zhao Wei didn't intend to create a "little Macau," mimicking China's casino-stuffed enclave on the Pearl River estuary. Li notes that Kings Romans controls an area "bigger than Macau" - three times bigger, in fact - and plans to build an industrial park and ecotourism facilities. In February 2012, said Li, construction began on what will be the second-largest airport in Laos after Wattay International Airport in the capital Vientiane. /=/

“Perhaps aware of anti-Chinese resentment, Li hailed Kings Romans as a model of responsible investment. About 40 percent of the complex's 3,000 workers were Chinese, he said, but the rest came from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. He then showed off a compound with scores of modest concrete houses which he said were given free to local Laotians who had once lived in wooden shacks. "These might be the happiest people in Laos," he said. Li called Laos "our second homeland." The SEZ certainly felt a lot like China. Most croupiers are Chinese. Most gamblers pay in Chinese yuan or Thai baht. The mobile phone signal is provided by a Chinese company. Street signs are in Chinese and English. The passports of visitors are processed by Chinese and Laotian immigration officers. The area is protected by the Lao People's Army, said Li, but when Reuters visited, the only car patrolling the streets belonged to the Chinese police. /=/

“Kings Romans has brushed against both the drug trade and the drug lord-pirate leader Naw Kham. In April 2011, a casino boat was seized by the freshwater pirate's men near Sam Puu Island and 19 crewmen held for a 22-million-baht ($733,000) ransom, which Zhao Wei paid, the Shan Herald Agency for News reported. Then, in September, an operation by Laotian and Chinese officials found 20 sacks of yaba pills worth $1.6 million in the casino grounds, according to Thai media reports. Li denied all knowledge of the yaba bust or that the kidnapping had even taken place, stressing that Zhao Wei came to the Golden Triangle to build an economic alternative to the narcotics trade. He said he had never heard of Naw Kham. "Maybe it's gossip. That's why they call this place the mysterious Golden Triangle." /=/

Lawlessness in Mekong Region

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “A thin line divides tourism, trade and terror in the Golden Triangle, where the lawless borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. In Myanmar, where the jungly banks of the Mekong River vanish into the mist, lies an anarchic realm of drug smugglers, militiamen and pirates on speedboats. "I'm scared to go any further," says Kan, a 46-year-old boatman, cutting his engine as he drifts just inside Myanmar waters from Thailand. "It's too dangerous." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

In December 2011, three Myanmar soldiers were reportedly killed in December when their joint patrol with Laos clashed with armed bandits about 20 kilometer (12 miles) upriver from the Thai border town of Sop Ruak, near the Mekong pirate Naw Kham's haunt of Sam Puu Island. See Murder of 13 Chinese Below. /=/

“New patrols by Chinese gunboats were supposed to restore peace to the region. But a visit to the Golden Triangle also found that attacks on Mekong shipping continue. Incongruously, just across the river, on the Laos side of the triangle, Reuters also discovered a vast casino complex catering to Chinese tourists. Its Chinese owner regards it as a "second homeland"; others worry it could morph into a strategic Chinese outpost. /=/

“This area, which lies at the heart of the Golden Triangle, has long famous for drug smuggling. But “these days narcotics are not the Mekong's only contraband. Other lucrative goods include: endangered wildlife such as tigers and pangolins; weapons, stolen vehicles and illegal timber; and, in the run-up to this month's Tet celebrations, thousands of dogs in filthy cages bound for restaurants in Vietnam. There is human contraband too. Illegal migrants from Myanmar and Laos are bound for Thailand's booming construction or sex industries, while a constant stream of North Koreans journey across southern China and through Laos to surrender to the Thai authorities, who obligingly deport them to South Korea. /=/

Murder of 13 Chinese on Mekong Ships Loaded with Drugs

Reporting from the Thailand-Myanmar border on the Mekong River, Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “It was here, according to the Thai military, that 13 Chinese sailors— blindfolded, gagged, terrified—on two cargo ships laden with narcotics were murdered in early October 2011. It was the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times. But a Reuters investigation casts serious doubts on the official account of the attack.[Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“The Thai military says the victims were killed upriver before their ships floated downstream into Thailand. But evidence gleaned from Thai officials and unpublished police and military reports suggests that some, if not all, of the sailors were still alive when their boats crossed into Thailand, and that they were executed and tossed overboard inside Thai territory. /=/

“On the morning of October 5, 2011—near the Thai border town of Sop Ruak, near the Mekong pirate Naw Kham's haunt of Sam Puu Island—the two cargo ships, Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, drifted down the Mekong into Thailand. The Hua Ping was carrying fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8 had apples and garlic. Sometime after they crossed the border, the ships were boarded by an elite Thai military unit called the Pha Muang Taskforce, named after an ancient Thai warrior king. On the Yu Xing 8's blood-splattered bridge, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as its captain, Yang Deyi, the taskforce said. The Hua Ping was deserted. /=/

“Aboard the two ships were 920,000 methamphetamine pills with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. The corpses of the 12 other crew members were soon plucked from the Mekong's swirling waters. Their horrific injuries were recorded in a Thai police report. Most victims had been gagged and blindfolded with duct tape and cloth, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had massive head wounds suggesting execution-style killings; others had evidently been sprayed with bullets. Li Yan, 28, one of two female cooks among the victims, also had a broken neck. /=/

Drug Lord Behind the Murder of the 13 Chinese on the Mekong?

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “The assailants remain unknown. Initially, the prime suspect was a heavily armed Mekong pirate who terrorizes shipping in Myanmar. As a furious Beijing dispatched senior officials to Thailand to demand answers, a suspect for the massacre emerged:Naw Kham, the fugitive "freshwater pirate" of the Mekong, a member of Myanmar's ethnic Shan minority whose hill tribe militia is accused of drug trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and murder. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“The freshwater pirate has capitalized on growing resentment towards China's presence along the Mekong. Cheap, high-volume Chinese goods are squeezing Thai and Myanmar farmers and small traders, and threatening to turn Laos into what Paul Chambers called "a mere way-station." /=/

“So when the crew of the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 were fished from the Mekong, Naw Kham seemed the obvious culprit. Yet both Kheunsai Jaiyen and Thai MP Sunai Chulpongsatorn, who chairs the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, remained unconvinced. Sunai believed that a Naw Kham legend had been created by attributing attacks by other Mekong bandits to him. "There are many Naw Khams, not just one," he said. "It's like in a drama. He's a made-up character. He exists, but it seems he has been given a lot of extra importance." /=/

“Lost in China's outrage over the massacre was the possibility that the Chinese sailors were themselves involved in the drug trade. One theory holds that Naw Kham suspected that the Chinese vessels contained large shipments of narcotics, and dispatched men to seize the illicit cargo and brutally murder the crew to deter others from running drugs through his territory.” /=/

Thai Commandos Responsible for Murder of the 13 Chinese on the Mekong

Later the investigation turned to nine members of an elite anti-narcotics taskforce of the Thai military. Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: On October 28, nine members of the Pha Muang Taskforce appeared before police in the northern city of Chiang Rai to answer allegations of murder and tampering with evidence. During a visit to Bangkok in late October, China's vice minister of public security, Zhang Xinfeng, described this as "important progress" and concluded: "The case has been basically cracked." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Thai police have interviewed more than 100 witnesses and are still investigating. Despite reports to the contrary in Chinese and Thai media, the nine soldiers -- who include a major and a lieutenant -- have not been charged with any crime and remain on active military duty. The Pha Muang Taskforce says its members boarded the Chinese ships after they had moored near the Thai port of Chiang Saen. But a prominent Thai parliamentary committee, which is also investigating the massacre, not only undermined this assertion but alleged official complicity. /=/

"Circumstantial evidence suggests that Thai officials were involved in the sailors' deaths," the House Foreign Affairs Standing Committee said on January 12 in an apparent reference to the military task force. "However, their motive, and whether it is connected to the drugs found on the ships, remains inconclusive," it said in preliminary findings seen by Reuters. /=/

“The Pha Muang Taskforce, based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, insists that Naw Kham, and not its nine soldiers, is responsible for murdering the Chinese sailors. Reuters has obtained the taskforce's report of the incident to the foreign affairs committee in November. It stated that on October 5 the Pha Muang force boarded the two cargo ships in Chiang Saen after learning they had been attacked near Sam Puu Island. They reported finding the dead captain on the Yu Xing 8's bridge and, in its hold, a cardboard box with 400,000 methamphetamine pills. Another 520,000 pills were hidden in three sacks aboard the Hua Ping. /=/

“Both ships were peppered with bullet-holes. There were 14 bullets or bullet casings on the Hua Ping's decks, said Thai police, and two blood trails apparently indicating where bodies had been dragged and tossed overboard. For Pha Muang, it was just another incident in its self-declared 11-year-old mission "to help secure the well-being of civilians residing along the three-nation border." But the taskforce's account has crucial gaps, said MP Sunai, the parliamentary committee chairman investigating the murders. /=/

“Pha Muang said the ships had already docked near Chiang Saen when its soldiers boarded them. But if one ship had only a dead captain aboard, and the other no crew at all, how did they drift down the fast-flowing Mekong without running aground, then safely moor near Chiang Saen? "It's a 200-tonne ship," said Sunai. "With nobody steering, it would have lost control long before it reached the riverbank." /=/

“The same point is made by a senior Thai official in Chiang Rai province who is close to the investigation and spoke on condition his name and exact profession were not identified. The boats could not have docked without both a captain and engineer on board, and they would probably need to read Chinese to understand the controls, he insisted. He was also convinced that some, if not all, of the Chinese sailors were alive when their ships reached Thailand. According to witnesses, he said, four smaller boats had escorted the two ships through Thai waters to the sound of gunfire. When the ships moored, about seven men jumped from them onto the smaller boats, the Thai official said, which then sped upriver again. The Thai official couldn't say who these men were, but believed that the military, who had sealed off the area, watched them go. /=/

Impact of the Murder of 13 Chinese on Mekong Ships Loaded with Drugs

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: The morning after the report was issued “unknown assailants on the Myanmar riverbank lobbed two M-79 grenades at four Chinese cargo ships and a Myanmar patrol boat. Both missed. Ten days after that, yet another Chinese ship was fired upon from the Laos bank. Again, nobody was hurt - and nobody identified for the attack. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“All Chinese shipping on the Mekong was suspended after the October massacre, which sparked popular outrage in China, with photos of the sailors' bodies circulating widely on the Internet. Shipping resumed five weeks later, with the departure of 10 cargo boats from the Mekong port of Guanlei -- protected by heavily armed Chinese border guards on speedboats./=/

“The Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 are still moored at Chiang Saen, across the river from the casino, their rusting flanks cordoned off with police crime-scene tape. Nearby, workers are loading dried goods and soft drinks onto another Chinese ship, the Hong Li, bound for the Myanmar port of Sop Lui. "Of course we're worried about security, but we're encouraged by the presence of Chinese patrols," said a crew member, who only identified himself by the family name Deng. Asked about his 13 dead compatriots, he echoed what is now a common misperception in China: nine Thai soldiers have admitted their guilt and will be held responsible for the killings. "We want the truth. That's the most important thing," said Deng, before the Hong Li sailed up the Mekong and into the void.” /=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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