Tensions rise over Mekong dam

Bangkok Post via AFP 20 April 2011

Laos faced pressure from its neighbours on Tuesday to delay construction of a controversial dam on the Mekong River as they failed to agree on a project that has sparked deep environmental concerns.

Officials from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam met in Vientiane to discuss the planned $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in northern Laos, an impoverished Communist nation which sees hydropower as vital to its future.

Laos's neighbours raised worries about insufficient environmental studies of the dam's likely impact, according to a statement released after the meeting, while Laos said there was no need for further consultation.

Vietnam in particular expressed "deep and serious concerns" about a lack of adequate assessments, calling for the deferment of planned hydropower projects on the mainstream Mekong for at least 10 years.

Discussions about the dam, which is the first of 11 proposed for the mainstream lower Mekong and will be capable of generating 1,260 megawatts of power, are now set to move to ministerial level.

Around 95 percent of this electricity will be exported to Thailand, which is backing the project financially, and Thai construction group CH. Karnchang Public Co is playing a leading role in the project.

The four member states of the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) have an agreement to cooperate on the sustainable development of the waterway and have been in consultations over the Xayaburi project.

But the final decision on the dam rests with Laos, which seems determined to press ahead.

"We understand the concerns of neighbouring countries. We will keep up our efforts to persuade them and make them understand why Laos needs to construct this dam," Daovong Phonekeo, deputy director general of Laos' Department of Electricity, said by telephone from Vientiane after the meeting.

Even before Tuesday's talks started, Laos state media signalled that construction was expected to begin soon, saying the Laos government "has full rights" to decide whether to approve construction of the dam.

Work has already started to build roads to the site.

"Developers expect construction of the Xayaburi Mekong hydropower plant to begin in the near future and take eight years to complete," the Vientiane Times reported on Tuesday.

Environmental groups have long objected to damming the river, which winds from the Tibetan Plateau through China and much of Southeast Asia. China already has several dams on the upper Mekong.

The wildlife organisation WWF has warned that dams could irreversibly change the Mekong's ecosystem, damaging fisheries crucial to the livelihoods of over 60 million people in the region.

It fears that the Mekong giant catfish, one of the world's biggest freshwater fish, could be driven to extinction if plans to build hydropower dams on the river go ahead.

Communist Laos is Southeast Asia's smallest economy and one of the poorest countries in the world.

The landlocked former French colony of about six million people is seeking to reduce its dependency on agriculture and foreign aid, helped by growing exports of minerals and electricity from hydropower generation.

The government is aiming for at least eight percent annual economic growth, with the aim of escaping from underdevelopment by 2020.

"To reach the target, Laos needs development projects, including hydropower," Daovong said.

A Strategic Environmental Assessment report commissioned by the MRC in October urged countries in the lower Mekong River region to delay any decisions about building hydropower dams for 10 years.

There is also concern in the United States, where Senator Jim Webb, head of a congressional committee on Southeast Asia, said last week that signs Laos may press ahead with the dam were "very troubling."

"Numerous scientific studies have concluded that construction of the Xayaburi Dam and other proposed mainstream dams will have devastating environmental, economic, and social consequences for the entire Mekong sub-region," he said in a statement.