Energy Ministry backs Xayaburi dam debate

Bangkok Post 21 April 2011

By Yuthana Praiwan and Nareerat Wiriyapong

Claims by NGOs of river damage are 'unproven'

The costs and benefits of the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River still needed to be explained, says the Energy Ministry.

Activists' claims that the dam would damage the environment had yet to be proven, said permanent secretary Norkhun Sitthipong.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) on Tuesday delayed a decision on construction of the dam, proposed by the Laos government.

Laos's neighbours have raised concerns 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.

A Mekong ministerial meeting will now consider the dam at a meeting late this year. The MRC members are Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Vietnam in particular has raised serious environmental fears.

Mr Norkhun said the National Resources and Environment Ministry, which represents Thailand on the commission, should explain the issues.

"We need to look at the EIA [environmental impact assessment] report to see whether the project will cause the kind of serious impact which NGOs claim.

"So far we do not have enough proof of such claims," he said.

Ch Karnchang (CK), Thailand's second largest contractor, has been awarded a concession to develop the dam, which would be built 80 kilometres from Luang Prabang. Thailand, represented by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), is likely to buy 95% of the dam's output.

An Egat official said the run-off river dam would cause "much less environmental impact" than a conventional dam.

"Power plants need EIA approval, no matter whether they are our projects, or those belonging to private developers. Otherwise, we won't sign a power purchase agreement with the owner," he said.

Egat has not seen the EIA.

It had completed talks with Laos on the volume and the price of the electricity, but had yet to sign a purchase contract. It is waiting for the MRC's approval of the project's EIA.

Sources at private Thai companies taking part in the project said the dam only needed enough water flow to allow power generation.

Claims by critics that the dam would cause the river to run dry did not make sense.

Prasert Bunsumpun, chief executive of PTT Plc, which holds a 25% share of Xayaburi, said the NGOs' claims had yet to be proved.

Chavalit Pichalai, deputy director-general of the Energy Policy and Planning Office, said if the project harmed the environment, it would not receive funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

"Run-off river dams normally do not require many people to move out," he said.

Regarding concerns that the project would threaten several fish species, Mr Chavalit said developers could always add fish to the river. "Building the Chao Phraya dam in Chai Nat province did not wipe out fish from the river," he said.

Laos is likely to seek funding from the ADB for the project.

The ADB has said more information on the environmental impact was needed before any decision could be made.

"The ADB has no plans to finance any project on the mainstream Mekong River," said Craig Steffensen, country director of ADB Thailand Resident Mission."The potential impacts of such activity on countries in the Mekong region have not been clearly determined and there is a potential for severe and irreversible negative social and environmental consequences," he added.