Laos begins work on widely criticized Mekong River dam before regional decision made

The Associated Press 17 April 2011

By DENIS D. GRAY

BANGKOK - Laos has quietly begun work on the first dam across the lower Mekong River even before a four-nation meeting to decide on the project that has roused critics ranging from a U.S. senator to the country's closest ally, Vietnam, an environmental group said Sunday.

The governments of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are scheduled to meet Tuesday to officially decide whether to construct the $3.5 billion, 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam in northern Laos.

But reports say Laos is already moving ahead on the project.

"We have been informed by local people that a road is being built as preparation for work on the Xayaburi dam. We have heard about this for some time," said Pianporn Deetes, of the U.S.-based International Rivers.

The English-language Bangkok Post Sunday said more than 20 miles (30 kilometres) of roadway leading to the dam site were under construction and that some villagers were already told they would be provided with new homes and compensation as low as $15 for being evicted.

Photographs showed road work in progress and trucks bearing logos of Ch Karnchang, the Thai company that won the bid to build the proposed dam that would generate electricity for sale to Thailand.

Lao officials could not be reached for comment and an email requesting explanation was not answered.

The Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency that includes the four decision-making countries, said it would contact the Lao government Monday. The commission is based in the Lao capital of Vientiane.

"We have never been informed by the Lao government about the possible construction around the Xayaburi dam. This has never been raised in any of the MRC meetings," said a commission spokesman, Surasak Glahan.

Tuesday's meeting will be held under the commission's umbrella. Its members try to forge a consensus on major, trans-boundary issues, but can go ahead with projects ike Xayaburi despite opposition from others in the group — so Tuesday's decision would be non-binding.

The proposed dam has sparked a major environmental battle in Southeast Asia and beyond with opponents fearing the dam would spur plans to build 10 more dams on the hitherto free-flowing mainstream of the lower Mekong. China has already dammed its upper reaches.

But Laos, one of the world's poorest nations, has said revenue from the dam is needed for social and economic development, maintaining that the project is environmentally sound.

Last week, U.S. Senator Jim Webb called the dam "a dangerously harmful precedent as it relates to the environmental health of Southeast Asia."

The Virginia Democrat said numerous scientific studies have concluded construction would have "devastating environmental, economic and social consequences for the entire Mekong sub-region."

The studies say the dam would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients for downstream farming and even foul Vietnam's rice bowl by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta. Vietnam's official media has slammed the project in a rare disagreement with the country's communist ally.

On Monday, 100 villagers from Thai provinces bordering the Mekong were to deliver protest letters to the Lao Embassy in Bangkok and to Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.