Mekong countries urge delay of Laos dam project amid ecological concerns

The Nation 20 April 2011

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee

Laos needs to delay the controversial Xayaburi hydropower project on the mainstream Mekong for more consultation, representatives of neighbouring countries said at an international meeting yesterday.

They claimed Laos had failed to convince the other three riparian countries on the lower Mekong River over the dam's possible impact on the environment and ecological system.

Representatives of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam discussed the project at a special session of the Mekong River Commis-sion Joint Committee (JC) in Vientiane.

The MRC received notification of the Xayaburi project from Laos last September. Under the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), the four countries would consult one another on the proposal and then reach a conclusion, within six months of the notification, on how to proceed with the project.

Laos proposed to build the dam in its northern province of Xayaburi to generate foreign currency for its economy.

The hydroelectric power project provides for an installed capacity of 1,280 megawatts, with a dam 810 metres long and 32 metres high, and a reservoir area of 49 square kilometres and live storage of 225 million cubic metres. Major Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang is the developer.

There is still a difference in views from each country on whether the prior consultation process among MRC members for the project should come to an end, said JC chairman Te Navuth.

As the joint committee failed to reach common ground, it handed over any decision to the ministerial level, he said.

The MRC council (at ministerial level) is to have its next annual meeting in October. "But I cannot predict how and when the council will make a final decision for the project," Te Navuth said in a phone interview from Vientiane.

Laos insisted there was no need to extend the process, since this option would not be practical, and environmental impacts across the boundaries of other riparian countries were unlikely. However, Laotian authorities promised to accommodate all comments and recommendations on the project.

"We appreciate all comments, [and] we will consider accommodating all concerns," said Viraphonh Viravong, head of the Laotian delegation.

An extension to conduct further studies would require much longer than six months and it would not be possible to satisfy all parties' concerns, he said.

The Xayaburi project will comply with the MRC Secretariat Prelim-inary Design Guidance and best practices based on international standards, he said. Major impacts on navigation, fish passage, sediment, water quality and aquatic ecology and dam safety could be mitigated to acceptable levels.

Cambodia, which is downstream from the proposed dam, said there was a need for a comprehensive study and assessment of the cross-boundary and cumulative environmental impacts.

Thailand, a major electric purchaser, raised concerns over how the lives of people who depend on the river would be affected.

"Therefore, we would like to see public views and concerns are well taken into consideration," Jatuporn Buruspat, director-general of Thai Department of Water Resources, said in an official response to the project.

Meanwhile, Vietnam expressed serious concern for the lack of adequate, appropriate and comprehensive assessments of cross-boundary and cumulative impacts that the project may cause downstream, especially in the Mekong Delta.

Vietnam recommended the deferment of this and other planned hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream for at least 10 years.