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Damned if they do? The great Xayaburi debate

Almost everyone who has joined a Pandaw expedition appreciates the importance of preserving Asia's great river valleys. We want the same unspoiled panorama we enjoy from the comfort of our decks to be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren.

And we know from mailbag how much our guests deplore the invasion of modern detritus into this ancient landscape, like the plastic rubbish thrown into the water that threatens the beauty of even remote locations.

On a far more complex level is the issue of Laos's Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong, one of the most controversial renewable energy projects in the world. This issue is less amenable to easy condemnation than discarded bottles and buckets, and Pandaw passengers have a unique opportunity to consider one of the great environmental issues of the age at close quarters.

This $4billion, 1.3MW hydro-electric mega-structure, is intended by the cash-strapped government of the "Lao People's Democratic Republic" (to give the country its full title) to transform a landlocked country, otherwise bereft natural resources. Along with other megastructures, like the proposed Don Sahong dam close to the Cambodian border, the dams are meant to transform Laos into the self-styled "battery of south east Asia".

This is not a simple issue, and easy condemnation should be resisted, not least because, as in other countries, the Mekong dams make navigation of the river more manageable for river traffic, Pandaw included. More importantly, the Laotians might reasonably object to richer countries, and self-righteous NGOs, laying down the law on what they can and cannot build in their own territory.

They would argue that this massive development, largely financed by Thai bankers, is a massive expression of the right of one of the world's poorest countries to develop its tiny economy ($12.3bn GDP – a mere 3% of Thailand's GDP) and lift more of its 6.7 million populace out of poverty.

Xayaburi Dam

That anyway is the business plan, but inevitably things are not that simple. Laos (largely supported by Thailand) has pressed on with the development of the dam in the teeth of strong opposition from local farmers and fishermen not just in Laos, but more acutely in the downstream Mekong nations of Cambodia and Vietnam.

They are furious about the impact that this man-made obstacle is said to be having on the primeval passage of this great body of water, said to host more biodiversity than any river other than the Amazon. More particularly they fear the potential devastation to the primeval patterns of fishing and agriculture that stem from arresting the river's flow and the creation of a massive reservoir. There is a credible risk of mass extinction of species of migratory fish, unable to reach their spawning ground, as well as devastating agricultural damage as the nutrient-rich silts that have always flowed down the are blocked.

Given that Pandaw passengers are in the privileged position of being able to see the dam up close (the dam's locks are a very tight fit and considerable challenge to the skill of Pandaw's captains) we like to think that our passengers, many of whom have influential voices in their home countries, will help to ensure that the continuing international debate is a well-informed and balanced one.

As Alex Stafford, the rivers expert of the conservation charity WWF puts the case against:

"Large hydropower project in the wrong sites, are having a major negative impact on the biodiversity, ecosystem integrity and economy of the Mekong River and its tributaries. We believe there are better ways to provide power and income to the people of the region that don't compromise fisheries and the fertile Mekong Delta."
"We hope that travellers on Pandaw vessels will recognize the incredible beauty and biodiversity of the Mekong River and speak out in favour of sustainably developing its resources and maintaining its ecological integrity."

We like to think that our passengers on our expeditions The Laos Mekong and The Mekong: From Laos to China will make up their own minds.

Incidentally, it's not just in environmental issues that have been stirred up by this construction project. As well as being an environmental issue, the Xayaburi Dam has also been a massive source of diplomatic tension, all but destroying the Mekong River Commission, a well-meaning international quango set up (and handsomely financed) with Western Aid. The MRC's attempts to arrest or delay the development, pending further investigations, was a dismal failure, proving to some that the body was a toothless talking shop, barely worth its inflated annual running costs.

Where will this all end? As a company that cares passionately about the Mekong "the mother of waters", will be watching the debate closely. Our belief is that the many wonders of this extraordinary nursery of diversity will be able to overcome the imposition of this amount of concrete and steel.

But what do you our Pandaw passengers think? Let us have your views at colin@pandaw.com.

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