BANGKOK — CRITICS of massive dams say big is no longer beautiful. But along the mighty Mekong River of Southeast Asia, planners insist that big dams still have a future.
Three decades ago, developers of the Mekong, which flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, planned to erect up to 20 barrages across the region's major waterway.
Then war intervened in Indochina.
Today, as diplomats scurry to forge peace in war-torn Cambodia and end super-power rivalries, the dam-builders face a new conflict with increasingly feisty environmentalists.
Witoon Permpongsacharoen of the Project for Ecological Recovery says Thailand's environmental movement came into its own in the late 1980s when protests stalled the construction of the Nam Choan dam in Thailand.
Now, activists are fighting the proposed second Nam Theun dam and other projects in the Mekong scheme which they say would exact a high cost in deforestation and the destruction of wildlife and villages.
"Now, after 30 years, they want to build hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River," Mr. Witoon says. "They should leave it alone. It will cause problems not just in Thailand but in other countries."
Most of the environmental opposition has focused on smaller, more imminent dams along Mekong tributaries. Given a political settlement, a mainstream dam costing billions of dollars would probably not be built until the next century.
The future of big dams hinges on sensitivity to environmental and social concerns, particularly the resettlement of those affected by the project.
In the past, Mekong engineers failed to acknowledge the impact on the environment, says Chuck Lankester, head of the Interim Mekong Committee, a United Nations-linked organization set up in 1957 to oversee the lower Mekong's development.
But that's changing, he says. Original plans for the Low Pa Mong dam on the mainstream Mekong called for displacing 500,000 people. As a compromise, planners are proposing that the height of the huge dam be decreased so that one-tenth of that number of people would be displaced. Given adequate compensation and handled sensitively, many displaced farmers would be willing to move and take new jobs, he insists.
"What excites me is not having a standoff debate with the environmental community, but bringing them into the project," he says.
Dam advocates hope to build at least one major barrage and smaller tributary dams to rein in the volatile 2,600-mile long Mekong. In heavy rains, the river can flood uncontrollably; in the dry season, a lack of water can decimate crucial rice crops. The river, the seventh longest in the world, is a major untapped source of hydroelectric power.
As its economy has surged in the last decade, Thailand, one of four countries represented in the regional planning committee, has aggressively pursued Mekong development. Thailand already has begun buying hydroelectric power from Laos. All the proposed dam sites are inside Laos or along the lengthy Thai border.
But those plans will face a growing environmental lobby which claims that Thai officials, unable to build dams inside their country, are exporting devastation to their neighbors.
Mekong development plans and regional cooperation also remain stymied by fighting in Cambodia and the residual bitterness of years of war. Cambodia was forced out of the Interim Mekong Committee in 1978 after the Vietnamese invasion polarized the countries of Southeast Asia.
Revitalizing the committee hinges on the country's four warring factions burying their differences and agreeing to an interim government called the Supreme National Council. China and the United States also have shown some revived interest in the program.
"Cambodia has had no say in this for a long time," a Western diplomat says. "It's been cut out of it for years."
Under the scheme, power generated within Laos and Cambodia would be sold to Thailand and Vietnam, the main markets, to spur regional cooperation and development.
But the availability of water still looms as a sensitive and potentially divisive issue in Southeast Asia. Thwarted by a US-led economic embargo, Vietnam is frustrated in its plans to develop the Mekong delta.
Low flows of fresh water from upstream during the dry season allow the encroachment of sea water up the Mekong river, cutting harvests in what is the country's major rice producing area.
Vietnam favors the construction of large upstream dams in Laos and Thailand to regulate the flow. But suspicions bred by centuries of rivalry are difficult to override. Vietnam worries that Thailand will use water as a weapon to hurt Vietnamese competition in rice exports.
"The Thais want to take water, which creates problems downstream during the dry season. We did not have so many problems until now," says Dao Trong Tu of Vietnam's National Mekong Committee.
"We want to make the delta the key area for producing rice in Vietnam," he says. "That depends on the Mekong development."