09/08/2020, 12.57
LAOS – CHINA
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Chinese mega-dams drying up the Mekong, stifling the Laotian economy

Chinese dam construction, which is damaging the river, is an “ideological choice” typical of a totalitarian regime that is stifling a neighbour. A Chinese company got control over a state-owned Laotian electrical company (and its revenues). Beijing is lying about the exploitation of water resources.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Hydroelectric dam building in China and Laos is increasingly damaging the Mekong River, which has the world’s most important freshwater fishery.

Last year Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam went through the worst drought of the last 40 years, and the situation this year looks set to get worse.

Given this situation, it is abundantly clear that China is the main culprit in the situation. On the one hand, Beijing continues to exploit the river beyond its capacities; on the other, it uses the debt trap to keep the region’s countries on a leash, especially Laos.

Chainarong Setthatchua, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Maha Sarakham University (northeastern Thailand) and an expert on the Mekong, points out that dams are the reflection of Beijing’s “ideological choice”.

For Toshiro Nishizawa, a Japanese professor who has advised the Laos government on fiscal stability, “Economically Laos is going to depend more on China and this is inevitable”.

In the past, the United Nations had warned that Chinese mega-projects associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (the new Silk Road) and related concessions had generated few jobs and lots of debts, but did favour local elites at the expense of the general population and weaker groups.

One example is the recent decision by the Laotian government to cede majority control of its electric grid to a Chinese company as it struggles to stave off a potential debt default.

Critics accuse Beijing of "debt trap diplomacy" to pursue its goals in energy development. This appears to have turned Laos (and its seven million people) into a “pseudo province” of China.

The partnership recently signed by state-owned Électricité du Laos (EdL) and the China Southern Power Grid Company gives the latter control over a large chunk of the country’s power grid.

Meanwhile, the gradual water loss in the Mekong has reached an alarming level, and threatens the river itself, which supports 60 million people in Southeast Asia.

The smaller Mekong basin affects irrigation, rice production and fisheries, all vital to the region’s food security.

The latest drought has also damaged habitats for turtles, reptiles and other critically endangered species. 

Analysts and experts have no doubts and point the finger at Beijing, accused of systematically lying when it comes to dams.

The dams do not help the downstream populations to irrigate the land, because they are only useful to China to generate energy.

Their widespread use reflects an "ideological choice" by "authoritarian regimes" regardless of the consequences of uncontrolled development and modernisation.

At present, the Mekong is in danger and so are its fish, vegetation, fishermen and the farmers who rely on the river for water.

Up to two million tonnes of fish are caught every year, a record without equal anywhere else in the world.

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