For Australian readers, tonight’s Foreign Correspondent program on ABC TV is on Laos and the Mekong River. Here is the promo from the website – looks interesting and, of course, very timely:

Giant catfish the size of family refrigerators hide in the depths with 1200 other species of exotic wildlife. Further downstream there are rare and mysterious freshwater dolphins. People frame their lives around what the river can bring – food, jobs, transport … or if you’re a bunch of giggling kids – a skylarking dip in the backyard splash pool.

By the time the Amazon of Asia – the mighty Mekong River – reaches Laos it’s already been put to serious use by the Chinese and now the little landlocked communist nation wants to do the same. Big-time.

“Most of the Lao people in particular those still living in the country are still living under the poverty line. I mean that having income of less than US$2 per day.”

It’s planning to plug in for its part in Asia’s economic boom by building dozens of dams on the Mekong and its tributaries. They’d drive hydro power stations making electricity for export and that that would transform a struggling minnow into The Battery of Asia.

But can the Mekong sustain the scale of the development underway and on the drawing board?

“If I were in Australia I’d say that this is something that I was vehemently against, but when you look at the contribution that this project makes to Lao GDP , for the benefits that come to the local community and the fact that Laos has few natural resources to bring it out of poverty one has to balance these conflicting issue.”

There are arguments and imagery familiar to Australians via the Murray/Darling debate – how does a nation aiming to grow, sustainably exploit its natural resources while climate change and the demands of population growth simmer in the background? What will these dams do to the life in, on and around the Mekong and what will be the impact for nations like Thailand and Vietnam further downstream that also depend on the Mekong?

South East Asia Correspondent Zoe Daniel takes a slow boat or three down Laos’ stretch of the meandering Mekong on a stunning journey of discovery. A magnificent wild watercourse that has sustained people for eons, that’s rich in spiritual history but that’s feeling the pressure of development. Will the mighty Mekong be overwhelmed?

For interested readers in Laos and elsewhere outside Australia, I believe Foreign Correspondent’s on-line version is not viewable outside the country (though I’m sure there are ways and means around this). But Australia Network also broadcasts Foreign Correspondent, so check that out.