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Mekong dams - generating controversy

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

I'm in Laos looking at dam construction plans on the Mekong and its tributaries. With Australian foreign aid money and Australian companies involved this is an issue that warrants more attention from our government and media.

Laos has been promised billions of dollars in foreign currency earnings from the sale of energy from a string of dams funded by overseas aid and private investment.

When I worked with AID/WATCH in the 1990s I focused alot on these issues. From my two field trips to South East Asia and collaboration with many local organisations I found widespread concern that dam building was a flawed development model.

More than a decade later opposition to dam building in this region has grown as the promised benefits have failed to materialize. Save the Mekong brings together a number of groups, including Australian NGOs, that dispute dams bring benefits to local people.

Meanwhile Australia's involvement is considerable. AusAID has funded the Lao government's Hydropower Project Office, the Mekong River Commission and contributed to the World Banks's Mekong Finance Facility. We are also involved through the Asian Development Bank.

AusAID's own analysis of development progress in Laos strongly suggests that the development model they have backed, largely based on economic growth from the export of hydropower energy, is failing the people of Laos.

AusAID estimates that 27 per cent of the population live on less than one US dollar a day and many exist on not much more.

In 1997 with an AID/WATCH colleague, Celia Brooke, we wrote about the extensive involvement of Australian companies and Australian foreign aid in dam building in southeast Asia.

New players are now looking to exploit the region. Today I'm heading southeast from Vientiane to look at the involvement of the ANZ Bank in a new dam on the Hinboun River, a Mekong tributary.


In 2008 ANZ was reported as contributing $187.5 million to the Theun-Hinboun Expansion Project, that is already linked with plans for forced evictions and increased river flows that will undermine food and water security for locals.

In my AID/WATCH days in the 1990s we campaigned against the first dam on the Hinboun River. Australia was linked with this project via our foreign aid money that goes to the Asian Development Bank.

The ADB has now admitted that this dam and the resulting flooding and erosion in the Hai and Hinboun river basins has had negative consequences for 30,000 people in 71 villages. The hardship is considerable due to declining fish stocks, loss of wet season rice cultivation and vegetable gardens, and contaminated drinking water.

And now ANZ is looking to profit out of this poor country. But the returns for this bank, which has a reputation for poor corporate social responsibility, may not live up to their expectations.

The path to profits dam builders and investors hope for is not always forthcoming. In 1997 I wrote an article, 'Big cracks stall Laos dam project' published in the Australian, that covered these issues.

In the coming days I'll write about this trip and what this bank, well known to Australians, is up to with it's dam building plans for another tributary of the Mekong.

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