Laos’ Hydro Dam Project:Ecosystem of Mainland Southeast Asia at risk

May 30, 2016

Laos’ Hydro Dam Project: Ecosystem of Mainland Southeast Asia at risk

by Tom Fawthrop

Laos’s Threat to the Mekong River

In the Mekong River’s 4,800 km journey from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet to Vietnam delta, the Sipandon area in southern Laos stands out as a critical part of the river‘s ecosystem, blessed by raging waterfalls, picturesque islands and a small colony of endangered freshwater dolphins.

Sipandon – meaning 4,000 Islands – is an area of immense biodiversity, ecotourism and abundance of fish migration, but its survival is at serious risk from the hydropower Don Sahong dam, which is on the verge of construction. “If this special wetlands zone is protected, it could be one of the great wonders of the world”, Carl Grundy-Warr, a geography professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) told Asia Sentinel.

But instead of signing up to the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands Protected Areas, the Lao government has opted for a dam that will block fish migration through the Sahong channel, bypassing the waterfall at Khone Phapeng.

Hundreds of NGOs object

Mega-First Malaysia, the Malaysia-based co-developer of the 256 mw dam project along with the Laotian government, faces opposition from hundreds of NGOs in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. More than 300,000 people have signed petitions to attempt to stop the dam, and Cambodian communities have staged demonstrations.

Even after calls from Mekong River Commission experts and constant calls by the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam to suspend all construction, however, preparations have steamed ahead. But now there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the 60 million people whose lives depend on a healthy, free-flowing Mekong. Dam construction that had been scheduled to start last month has been delayed.

Mekong specialist Brian Eyler, Deputy Director of the Washington, DC-based Stimson Center, views the delay as linked to “a recent flurry of meetings between the governments of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the past two months,” trying to resolve the conflict over dams on the lower Mekong.

A spokesman for the Mekong River Commission confirmed that “the matter is no longer in the hands of the MRC. It’s now in the hands of the governments,” referring to the three member states but without any reported participation by Thailand.

Vientiane Remains Obdurate

Laos has up to now refused all requests from the riparian countries to engage in a joint scientific investigation of dam impacts and trans-boundary studies and suspend or postpone all dam construction on the mainstream river.

Eyler believes the current pause in the dam’s development could be attributed to downstream neighbors putting diplomatic pressure on Laos. The impact of this projected dam, the Xayaburi dam and nine more scheduled to be built across the Mekong would also have a devastating impact much farther down river.

Seven dams on the Chinese stretch have already reduced the natural flow of nutrient-rich sediment to the delta, the rice-bowl of Vietnam, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s rice exports.

Research by wetlands specialist Nguyen Huu Thien based in the delta point to a grim future for 18 million people living there. “If all 11 dams go ahead on the Mekong, then in 20 years’ time, Vietnam will cease to be a rice exporter,” Thien said in an interview. “The delta will be sinking because the dams upstream will block the sediment. Any delta sinks when it is not replenished by sediment flow.”

If Vietnam is getting tougher with Laos, their long-time Indochina ally, it is hardly surprising. Laos unilaterally proceeded with the construction of the first dam on the lower Mekong – the Xayaburi dam, now  60 percent completed – and brushed aside demands by the riparian countries for comprehensive environmental impact studies. China’s Sinohydro has contracted to build the dam and has completed a bridge linking the dam site on an island to the mainland.

Still possibility of a deal

The Irrawaddy Dolphin is regarded as a sacred animal by both Khmer and Laos people with a rounded head and measures up to eight feet in length. The Laotian hydro project threatens the survival of this friendly animal.

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In spite of the well-advanced preparations to build the Don Sahong dam, in Eyler’s assessment there is still a chance of a last-minute deal.  “Given this high stakes situation where the future of the region is at risk,” he said, “we shouldn’t see Don Sahong’s construction as a foregone conclusion.”

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai earlier this year cited the delta’s importance to the development of southern Vietnam and the country as a whole, telling local media that: “The Mekong Delta supports 27 percent of Vietnam’s GDP, 90 percent of its rice exports and 60 percent of fishery exports and the region is facing enormous challenges to water resources.”

The Mekong supports the world’s largest inland fishery with an estimated annual harvest of 2.2 million tonnes of wild fish, annually worth US$7.8 billion according to a report released in October by Ian Cowx, director at the Institute of Fisheries at Hull University in the UK.

Tourists from around the world visit the Ochiteal dolphin pool in Cambodia to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. ©Lee Poston / WWF-Greater Mekong

Mega-First counters that their dam will include extensive fish mitigation that would divert a wide variety of fish species away from the Sahong to smaller channels that have been widened and deepened. However, independent scientists have rejected these claims. Fish mitigation imported from other parts of the world, they argue has no track record of success when applied to tropical rivers.

Mekong River Commission (MRC)

Although during the MRC consultation process the overwhelming response from riverine communities Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam rejected the dam, the toothless Mekong River Commission has no veto right.

Duong Ni, Director of the Center for Biodiversity at Can Tho University in the delta has expressed strong concern that the US-backed Lower Mekong Initiative has focused only on climate change while paying little attention to what scientists consider to be an even worse threat: the dams being built upstream.

“Dams will erode all attempts to cope with climate change,” Duong’s said. “While we are busy adapting to climate change and rising sea levels, the dam will hit us like a rock to the back of the head.”

Laotian government planners believe that building hydropower dams to sell electricity to their power-hungry neighbors will generate the hard currency to escape its position as one of Asia’s poorest countries. Cambodia and Vietnam have so far failed to address Laos’s projected loss of revenue if they abandon the dams in deference to the urgent concerns of downstream nations

Research by the Stimson Center provides the outline of an alternative energy strategy that could protect the Mekong from more mainstream dams, and potentially generate even more income than their current strategy. In their latest paper New Narratives on the Mekong, they address this very point as part of an innovative plan for conflict-resolution on the Mekong.

Cooperation to supply energy grid?

Laos lacks a national electricity grid. If assistance were given to the land-locked country to create one, the Stimson report argues that could enable potentially more net export revenue with fewer mainstream dams while also reducing or eliminating the current need to import electricity from Thailand.

Laos is already building large numbers of dams elsewhere other tributaries to supply such a national grid, which would not generate the diplomatic fallout engendered by the Don Sahong dam conflict, and any other dam on this international river. International support for Vientiane to turn to renewable energy such as solar and wind-power could also play a part in the conflict resolution.

But if current diplomacy fails, then the Mekong River Commission, founded on the mantra that the Mekong is a river of international cooperation, friendship and respect for shared water resources, is clearly dead.

Tom Fawthrop ( is a Chiang Mai-based journalist and filmmaker specializing in Southeast Asia.

Chris Hedges: America 2016

May 23, 2016

Chris Hedges:  America 2016

Erudite “ChrisHedges  is an American journalist, activist, author, and Presbyterian minister. Hedges is also known as the best-selling author of several books including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002)—a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for NonfictionEmpire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), Death of the Liberal Class (2010), the New York Times best seller, written with cartoonist Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), and his most recent Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015).

I like his views about government-big business– big bank partnerships.  His comments also seem to resonate well, especially among young American voters since The Bern (Bernie Sanders) has been making headlines in the US  primaries by giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. So I thought I should share them with you on my Double 7 Day. And of course, I expect responses from all of you.–Din Merican




The American Dream: Detroit’s resuscitation

April 4, 2016

The American Dream: Detroit’s resuscitation

by Shrey Srivastava

If one could epitomise the phrase “could have been” in one simple image, it would indubitably be the image of Detroit. The unyielding forces of time have taken a once great city and denigrated it to the status of one of not only one of America’s most economically destitute, but also one of its most dangerous regions. Nowadays, Detroit carries many of the hallmarks of the lesser developed countries of the world, especially with roughly 47% of the population being described as “functionally illiterate” by The National Institute for Literacy, a rate only 13.8% higher than that of Afghanistan. Despite this, Detroit still carries as much, if not more potential as it did in the 20th century, and is simply crying out for some economic solutions to its varied and diverse range of problems. Much of Detroit’s high crime rate can, in truth, be narrowed down to a high unemployment rate, leading to a lack of jobs for people to occupy themselves with, so even this ailment, is, at its core, financial. What this means is that there is still hope for this long-suffering city, as long as the relevant American policymakers act in a fashion that is both effective and sustainable; alas, it is clear to see that this has not happened thus far. Nevertheless, what I endeavour to achieve with this article is to perhaps shed some light on how Detroit can again become the bustling, cosmopolitan hub that it once was, through, primarily, the introduction of a special economic zone.

Special economic zones, which seem like a highly unusual step for a developed country such as the USA, may in fact be a simple and effective solution to revitalise the city of Detroit. The step of making the city a special economic, or more specifically, an industrial zone could potentially be the catalyst for a holistic revitalisation of the Detroit economy. In a nutshell, an industrial zone is a zone specifically made out for industrial development, where tax cuts and tax holidays, among other financial incentives, would incentivise corporations to set up operations in Michigan’s largest city.

Detroit’s unemployment rate was a whopping 29% during the worst that we saw of the 2008 recession, meaning that more than 1 in 4 people were unemployed at the time. Despite having reduced somewhat due to, among other causes, a steady outflow of people from the city, unemployment rates are still grossly high, and if Detroit wants to reverse its fall from grace, this is one of its first facets that need changing. The only way to do this, in truth, is by somehow persuading businesses to come to this dilapidated zone of urban decay, and invest in the revitalisation of the area. Now, feasibly, the only way in which this can happen is by supplying them with the aforementioned financial incentives to encourage them to locate in Detroit, supplying jobs for a great proportion of the population. This is the intuitive first step to Detroit’s regeneration.


Functional illiteracy, as alluded to above, is also a major proverbial roadblock to the future success of Detroit. The solution to this is almost as obvious as its problems itself; to invest more in education. Despite politicians’ repeated assertions stating the importance of education, they themselves seem not to believe in what they say, the evidence of which lies in Detroit’s astonishingly abysmal literacy rates. Regardless, education is quite frankly one of the most important facets of any developed region, so for Detroit’s schools to be in the state they are in (as repeatedly shown by the mass media) is frankly shocking. Needless to say, this can only be solved through an increase in education spending in the city, which would give a better education to many residents of the city, thus giving them more transferable skills with which to work and earn money. In addition to this, education has a vital role to play in keeping school-aged adolescents off the streets, thus reducing crime rates, and making the city overall more attractive for people to relocate to. With the low house prices across the whole of Detroit nowadays, it could prove a popular location for many individuals desiring a lower cost of living, if only there was a basic level of security and educational services in the area. By spending more on education, many of Detroit’s fundamental problems could perhaps be ameliorated or even eradicated altogether.


To make sure that Detroit does not fall prey to the same evils which caused its dilapidation decades ago, they need to learn from their various mistakes. The biggest of these was to rely far too much on the car industry, which turned into its Achilles heel when Ford Motors, among other corporations, left the city. Diversification is the key here to financial prosperity, as Detroit needs to ensure that when one industry perhaps fails in the city, there are many others to continue to back up the city financially. This was exactly the problem with the city before; they did not have a backup plan for when demand for automobiles lessened. The conversion of Detroit into an industrial zone and a renewed focus on education will only be sustainable if the city manages to provide wide-ranging sources of income; otherwise, they will simply consign themselves to the same fate as before. In addition, without diversification, a great deal of brain drain would occur, with talented residents leaving the city due to lack of opportunity in their chosen field of expertise. As such, it is crucially important for Detroit to spread its roots far, not deep, if they want to ensure their continued financial prosperity. Of course, in addition to the 3 economic reforms outlined here, much social reform needs to take place in the city before we can truly say that it has been regenerated, but these financial steps provide the building blocks to restore Detroit, again, into a great pillar of the USA.



Listen to Tshering Tobgay, Enlightened Prime Minister of Bhutan


March 26, 2016

Listen to Tshering Tobgay, Enlightened Prime Minister of Bhutan at TED

We in Malaysia can learn a thing or two from a landlocked nation like Bhutan about good governance and global citizenship. We have a corrupt leadership and a mismanaged economy, whereas Bhutan has a democracy which  was imposed upon its people  by its revered King and a government which cares for its citizens, manages its affairs in an exemplary manner, and protects the environment. Pristine Bhutan is not just a carbon neutral nation; it is a carbon negative one.

Let us protect our environment, fight climate change and, as  the Prime Minister of Bhutan, H.E. Tshering Tobgay said, let us do it together.–Din Merican

Message to Malaysian Civil Servants–Stand Up and be Counted

February 27, 2016

Message to Malaysian Civil ServantsStand Up and be Counted

by Pola Singh

 Malaysian Civil Servants–Pak Turuts and  Pak Hunggoks

FOR some unexplained reason, civil servants are reluctant to be seen with the rakyat in championing certain causes; no matter how worthy they are. Something is preventing them from showing their support.

Take for instance preserving and protecting the remaining green lungs in KL city; Bukit Kiara (BK) located in the heart of the city is a good example.

At the national level, the Cabinet in 2007 agreed to gazette 189 hectares to turn it into a public park. But things moved at a snail’s pace with parcels of land being given out to the well-connected through the years.

We now learn that the Government will finally gazette Bukit Kiara next year and not surprisingly only 159ha will be gazetted. The rakyat is also not sure whether this hectarage figure will remain intact when it comes to crunch time.

So in order to send a strong message to the powers that be to uphold their promise to gazette Bukit Kiara speedily, Friends of Bukit Kiara (FoBK) has so far organised three “Save Bukit Kiara” walks. Although a sizeable crowd turns up, there are hardly any civil servants participating in such an event. Why? If they don’t seem to be interested, why are the heads of departments not encouraging their officers and staff to support such worthy causes especially when they are in line with their own policies and what they expound.

For instance agencies such as the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) and ministries such as the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry have formulated clear green and environmental policies while City Hall (DBKL) and Jabatan Landskap Negara have developed the KL Master Plan to implement.

When announcing the sound policies, promises are made and assurances given that they will actively engage the key stakeholders to ensure the successful implementation of the policies.

But when such opportunities arise they are nowhere to be seen. It appears as if they are disinterested to push forward their policy agenda.

Now it looks like that only the NGOs and public support such causes while the policy formulators who should be actively involved at the ground level appear indifferent.

Why are the civil servants so reluctant to turun padang but instead seem content watching from a distance? After all it is their cause that the rakyat is supporting. By right they should be turning up in full force as well as helping in organising such events.

Is it fear? Are they afraid for reasons best known to them, to be seen mingling with personalities from NGOs? Or could they think that they might incur the wrath of certain well-connected people? Or is it simply a case of plain apathy?

Whatever it is, the mind-set has to change. Heads of departments should encourage their officers and staff to take part in such meaningful events as well as intermingle with like-minded rakyat. More importantly these departments and agencies must walk the talk.

On an individual personal basis and as a concerned citizen, aren’t they prepared to play their part to protect and preserve the green lungs so that their children, grandchildren and future generations can enjoy what they are currently enjoying.

President Obama Delivers Remarks at the U.S.- ASEAN SUMMIT in California

February 17, 2016

President Obama Delivers Remarks at the U.S.- ASEAN SUMMIT in California| 02-16-2016

Remarks by President Obama at Opening Session of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit

Sunnylands Center
The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands
Rancho Mirage, California

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Good afternoon, everyone.  It is my privilege to welcome you to this landmark gathering — the first U.S.-ASEAN Summit hosted by the United States.  This reflects my personal commitment, and the national commitment of the United States, to a strong and enduring partnership with your 10 nations individually and to Southeast Asia as one region, as one community — ASEAN.

I want to thank my co-chair, President Choummaly of Laos; Secretary General Minh; and leaders from all 10 ASEAN nations for being here.

As everyone knows, I first came to know the people and the beauty and the strength of Southeast Asia as a boy when I lived in Indonesia for several years with my mother.  As President, I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of your countries.  You and the people of ASEAN have always shown me extraordinary hospitality, and I hope we can reciprocate with the warmth today and tomorrow — which is why I did not hold this summit in Washington.  It is cold there.  It’s snowing.  So, welcome to beautiful, warm Sunnylands.  (Laughter.)

As President, I’ve insisted that even as the United States confronts urgent threats around the world, our foreign policy also has to seize on new opportunities.  And few regions present more opportunity to the 21st century than the Asia Pacific.  That’s why, early in my presidency, I decided that the United States, as a Pacific nation, would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long-term role in the Asia Pacific.  And this has included engagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN, which is central to the region’s peace and prosperity, and to our shared goal of building a regional order where all nations play by the same rules.

As part of our deeper engagement, I’m proud to be the first U.S. President to meet with leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries.  This summit marks our seventh meeting.  At your invitation, the United States joined the East Asia Summit, and together we’ve made it the region’s leading forum for addressing political and security challenges.  I’ve made now seven visits to the ASEAN region — more than any previous American President.  At our last meeting in Kuala Lumpur, we forged a new Strategic Partnership.  And our sustained engagement is delivering concrete results that benefit all of us — momentum that we can build on here at this summit.

Together, we can continue to increase the trade and economic partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for our people.  Since I took office, we’ve boosted trade between the United States and ASEAN by 55 percent.  The region is now our fourth largest goods trading partner, including U.S. exports that support more than 500,000 American jobs.  U.S companies have been the largest source of foreign investment in ASEAN — one of the many reasons that the region’s GDP has surged in recent years, lifting people from poverty into the middle class.

I want to take this opportunity to again congratulate my fellow leaders on the formation of the ASEAN Community, which is another important step toward integrating your economies.  Here at this summit, we can build on this progress and do more to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation so that growth and development is sustainable and inclusive and benefits all people.

Together, we can also continue to increase our security cooperation to meet shared challenges.  In recent years, the United States has increased our maritime security assistance to our allies and partners in the region, improving our mutual capabilities to protect lawful commerce and to respond to humanitarian crisis.  Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means.

Together, we can continue to support the aspirations and dignity of our citizens.  The historic election in Myanmar and the transition now underway gives hope for a nation that is inclusive, united, peaceful and democratic.  In joining the TPP, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have committed to high labor and environmental standards.

I’m very proud that our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative is helping to empower young men and women who are shaping the region every day.  As you know, I’ve held a number of town hall meetings with these remarkable young people.  And their idealism, their courage, their willingness to work for the future that they believe in should all give us hope.  As leaders, we have to answer their aspirations.  And here at the summit, we can reaffirm that strong, prosperous and inclusive societies require good governance, rule of law, accountable institutions, vibrant civil societies, and upholding human rights.

Finally, together, we can continue to do more around the world to meet transnational challenges that no one nation can meet alone.  As we were reminded again by the attack in Jakarta last month, the scourge of terrorism demands that we stay vigilant, share more information and work cooperatively to protect our people.  Just as our nations worked together to achieve a strong climate change agreement in Paris, now we need to implement that agreement and step up investment in clean, affordable energy, including for developing countries.

So, economic growth that is inclusive, creating opportunity for all; mutual security and the peaceful resolution of disputes; human dignity, including respect for human rights and development that is sustainable — that is our vision.  That’s what brings us here together today.

I want to thank all of my fellow leaders for being here and for your commitment to a strong U.S.-ASEAN partnership.  And given the extraordinary progress that we’ve achieved together these past seven years, I’m confident that we can continue our momentum at this summit.

With that, I want to invite President Choummaly to say a few words as well.