Xayaburi dam faces groundswell of opposition from countries downriver

The Nation 8 March 2011

By Pongphon Sarnsamak, Jim Pollard

A highly contentious plan by the Lao government to build the first dam on the lower stretch of the Mekong River has spurred growing speculation that Hanoi - and possibly Phnom Penh - may pressure Vientiane to delay the dam for 10 years.

The Mekong River Commission has recommended the dam be deferred because of fears about possible serious negative impacts for millions of people who live downriver from the dam and are dependent on the huge amount of fish and sediment in the lower half of the river for their livelihoods.

The dam, which would be built just south of Luang Prabang in Xayaburi province, is strongly opposed by academics in Vietnam and environmental groups in all four countries that are part of the MRC.

It is seen as a huge threat to millions of people, especially fishing communities living around Cambodia's huge Tonle Sap lake and farmers in the Mekong Delta, which is Vietnam's "rice bowl".

The site of the Xayaburi Dam is close to a fault line where a small earthquake occurred last month. There are also fears it would open the way to about a dozen dams on the lower stretch of the river, including one across a channel near Siphandon (Four Thousand Islands) rapids.

Concerns about the dam - and whether it represents a threat to Vietnam's "food security" - were raised by panellists at a recent forum at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand attended by MRC chief Jeremy Bird and environmentalists.

Construction of the Lao dam will be discussed at the MRC's next meeting in Cambodia.

The Water Resources Department's director general Jatuporn Burutpat said his agency would submit the summary of a public hearing on the dam with local people who live in areas along the Mekong.

He said Thailand would not take any standpoint on building the Xayaburi Dam, which would be the first to be built on the lower Mekong. Thai construction giant Ch Karnchang would build the dam - if it goes ahead.

Pianporn Deetes, a campaigner from International Rivers, who surveyed the construction site at Xayaburi province, said the dam would affect more than 40 villages along the Mekong, from Luang Prabang to Xayaburi province.

She said the dam would also affect the incubation of freshwater tropical fish, such as the giant catfish and other aquatic life, as it would destroy islets and boulders where Mekong giant catfish lay their eggs.

The plan to build the dam, which would generate 1,260 megawatts of power, was initiated by the government of Laos. Thai company Ch Karnchang has proposed investing Bt90 billion in the project, which would have at a total cost of more than Bt100 billion.

According to an MRC report, the dam would inundate an area of about 49 square km that would be 90km long.

Construction would take seven and a half years, during which 10 villages, 391 households, and 2,130 people would need to be relocated.

Electricity generated from the plant would be sold to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) from 2019.

In related development, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry will ask China to release more information relating to water levels over a whole year in the mainstream of the Mekong River.

"We need this information to evaluate the water situation in the Mekong," Jatuporn said. The ministry's request to China would be put to the MRC meeting in Cambodia this month.

Previously, China had contributed hydrological data from the Jinghong and Manwan dams in its southwestern Yunnan province to facilitate drought disaster relief in states downstream during last's year's dry season. But the data was not sufficient to evaluate the situation over a whole year.

The ministry also requested the MRC secretariat to ask China about the water supply situation in the upper Mekong, even though China is not an MRC member.

Chinese officials said the extremely low level of water in the upper Mekong River resulted from a decreased rate of snowmelt in the Himalayas, and extensive water usage by agricultural activities in China.

However, Jatuporn said the average level of water in the Mekong River from January to March was higher than when compared with the same period last year.

"The water level in the lower Mekong River is currently not in a critical situation."

Pianporn said that people living along the river in Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai province had been adversely affected by unusual fluctuations in the river level. They could not collect kai algae, a species of freshwater algae known as river grass, mostly found in the Mekong.

"Even though China has contributed hydrological data from the upper Mekong, the MRC has not established any mechanism to control a minimum fluctuation rate for the river, " she said.