Laos Defies Neighbours’ Objections to Construction of Mekong Dam

November 13, 2011

The government of Laos is showing increasing determination to build the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River despite persistent objections and warnings of disastrous consequences from neighbouring countries, international donors and environmental groups.

Laos has already been accused of starting preliminary construction on dam infrastructure in defiance of a decision in April by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) — of which Laos is a member along with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam — to delay approval of Xayaburi until there is consensus.

Now the Vientiane government is being accused of commissioning a fraudulent report to “greenwash” the dam’s failings ahead of an MRC meeting early next month to further debate the $3.5-billion Xayaburi project.

A report last week by the California-based International Rivers organization accuses the Lao government of using a carefully fashioned report by the Swiss company Poyry Energy AG to back its case for approval of the Xayaburi dam.

The Poyry report is accused of falsely asserting that all necessary impact assessments have been done and that Laos has completed the consultation process necessary for approval.

International Rivers also points out that Poyry Energy is suspiciously close to the Xayaburi project.

The company is a partner in another project in Laos with the Thai construction company, Ch. Karnchang, that has been contracted by the Lao government to build Xayaburi.

And, says International Rivers, the Poyry report sidesteps or ignores the failure of the project to comply with dozens of guidelines or requirements set out by the MRC.

The report, says International Rivers, fails to adequately address concerns raised by the MRC, whose own review of the project calculated it would block fish migration on the Mekong, threaten between 23 and 200 fish species, have damaging effects on sediment flows and put unpredictable pressures on ecosystems around the river.

More than 60 million people live in the river basin of the lower Mekong and about two-thirds of those depend on fishing for all or part of their livelihood.

In Cambodia people depend on 80 per cent of the protein in their diet from fish caught in the Mekong or the associated great lake, the Tonle Sap.

But the MRC reckons that 30 per cent of the protein sources, up to 365,000 tonnes of fish per year, in Laos and Cambodia could be threatened by the Xayaburi dam, the first on the lower Mekong.

It is because Xayaburi is the first of 12 dams planned for the lower Mekong — China has built several on the upper reaches in its territory without any consultation with neighbours — that the approval process is so contentious.

The process is being seen as a precedent for the other 11 planned dams.

There’s a lot of money involved.

Laos, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, plans to sell the electricity from the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam to northeastern Thailand.

If all six of the 12 Mekong dams that are planned for Laos are built, the country could call in at least $2.5 billion a year in revenue.

But an environmental impact study done for the MRC estimates that the damage to fishery and agricultural industries on the Mekong of the 12 dams could reach $500 million a year.

There are already signs that the dams built by China and others on tributaries of the Mekong have affected water flows and fish-migration patterns.

The Mekong system is the world’s largest inshore fishery, but there are reports of declining stocks and variations in the river’s intricate relationship with the Tonle Sap lake, which should ensure constant water flows in the lower reaches of the Mekong and year-round harvests in the delta in Vietnam.

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