Xayaburi dam work begins on sly

Bangkok Post 17 April 2011


Construction work around a controversial dam in Laos which is expected to provide cheap energy to Thailand is well underway despite the project not yet receiving official approval.

DIGGING IN: A backhoe digs the earth on a road leading to the proposed dam site, about 20km from Tha Dua pier.

An investigation by the Bangkok Post Sunday which visited the area surrounding the Xayaburi dam on the Lower Mekong River last week found major road works under construction and villagers preparing to be relocated.

Several of the villagers said they were to receive as little as US$15 (450 baht) in compensation for moving from the area.

Trucks and backhoes bearing the name of Ch Karnchang, the Thai company jointly involved in the $3.5 billion project with the Lao government, were seen clearing and grading roads.

Mekong River Commission (MRC) members Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are due to meet this Tuesday to decide whether to approve the project.

Vietnam and Cambodia are opposed to the dam, which has also raised concerns among environmentalists and activists who say it has circumvented proper environmental impact studies.

However, the decision is not binding on any of the countries and any one member can go ahead with a project if it wants.

WE MEAN BUSINESS: A fleet of more than 20 Ch Karnchang trucks, along with 10 backhoes. The trucks carry the company’s logo.

Our investigation revealed road work being undertaken over more than 30km from Ban Nara village to Ban Talan and Ban Houay Souy, which is near the proposed site for the dam.

According to villagers living near the dam site, the road work started about five months ago.

This was one month after the Lao government submitted the documents required for consultation to the MRC, which included an environmental impact assessment, for review.

From Ban Nara village, about 17km from the Tha Dua pier where people cross the Mekong River to gain access to Xayaburi, there is a potholed two-lane road running parallel to the river.

But as the road veers to Ban Talan and Ban Houay Souy on the mountainside of the river, it has been widened to five to eight metres with a hard level surface.

YOU’LL HAVE TO GO: Ban Talan village below the road at the campsite.

Backhoes were seen digging by the roadside, and about 10km from Ban Nara village, dozens of trucks and backhoes were parked at a temporary construction camp. They bear the name Ch Karnchang, which has set up a subsidiary in Laos called Xayaburi Power to carry out construction and operate the dam project.

About 3km further on, there is a larger camp with heavy machinery, fuel tanks, cement mills, food stalls and grocery shops. Some workers were seen at the site and 500m away, there is a checkpoint with a sign saying "construction area" which bars entry.

The newly levelled road continues about 15km before abruptly ending at Ban Houay Souy, which is now accessible only by boat.

HOME, SWEET HOME: One family which has been asked to move to make way for the dam.

"They want to finish it before the rain comes," said one worker.

Laotians from other parts of the country have already come to seek work. Some have set up grocery shops and food stalls, while others have taken jobs as road workers or are waiting for construction work on the dam to start.

One man from Vientiane said he and several others from the capital had come looking for work. He said they had been told that an office would open next month.

The relocation of villagers is also ready to begin. At Ban Talan, villagers said Lao authorities had come to see them. They were told they would have to move but no date was specified. The villagers said they were promised new concrete houses allotted by the government on a nearby mountain.

They said they were also promised $15 in compensation. "The authorities said so, so we have to do it," said one villager. Ch Karnchang was unavailable for comment.

In September 2010, the Lao government petitioned the MRC to begin the formal process of approving the Xayaburi, the first of 11 proposed dams across the lower Mekong.


PAVING PARADISE: A cement mill on the road.

This initiated the required procedure for all such projects as stipulated in the MRC agreement signed by member countries in 1995.

Under the agreement, development projects with potential transboundary impacts should be subject to review and consultation before proceeding.

Prasarn Marukpitak, a retired senator working on social development in the region, said it was evident preparation work for the dam was in full swing.

Mr Prasarn said if the project went ahead without agreement from all MRC member countries, it could escalate into an international confrontation. "Laos is one of the MRC's members. The international community is keeping an eye on whether it is overriding the agency's rules.

"It has apparently ignored the region's strategic impact assessment and the consultation process," said Mr Prasarn.

The Xayaburi dam project plans to start commercial operation in January 2019.

In December last year, Thailand's National Energy Policy Committee approved the electricity purchase agreement, paving the way for the state electricity supplier Egat to sign a contract with Ch Karnchang's subsidiary Xayaburi Power. About 95% of the project's 1,260MW capacity is set for export to Thailand at a rate of 2.15 baht per unit.