Early work on dam 'normal practice'

Bangkok Post 8 May 2011


The Laos government has defended early road construction work near the controversial Xayaburi dam project, saying it is ''fairly common practice'' in the country.

The Bangkok Post Sunday reported last month that extensive road work for the US$3.5 billion (105 billion baht) Xayaburi dam had been under way for five months although the project had not yet received formal approval from member states of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

The roadwork was being conducted by the Thai joint venture partner, Ch Karnchang, over a 30km area from Ban Nara village to Ban Houay Souy near the proposed dam site.

Viraphonh Viravong, director-general of Laos' Department of Electricity, under the Ministry of Energy and Mines, said the road upgrading projects were requested by both the Xayaburi and Luang Prabang provincial authorities. He said the roads would be used by the public if the project does not get approval.

He said the developer's consultants spent a lot of time in the area conducting a two-year feasibility study and found infrastructure development was needed.

''This is a fairly common practice for developments in Laos since the early completion of access roads helps to reduce the mobilisation time and reduce the overall construction [time] of the project,'' Mr Viraphonh wrote in an email.

''While there of course is a risk that the project will not proceed, the road upgrading was a significant benefit to the residents of the area and that is in line with the local authorities' policy to improve the livelihood of their people.''

The project, which expects to generate 1,260MW electricity and sell 95% of capacity to Thailand, has split the MRC, with Vietnam and Cambodia opposing it.

On April 19 at the MRC's final consultation meeting, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand asked for the project to be deferred and the issue was moved to the ministerial council meeting.

The Xayaburi dam is the most advanced project of 11 proposed dams on the Lower Mekong. Environment groups and NGOs have criticised the project for the potential damage they say it could do to ecosystems and river communities.

Mr Viraphonh, who also heads Laos' MRC delegation, said his government and international consultants and experts are in the process of addressing all issues related to the project.

All available information and data will be reviewed before commencement of any major works.

''The Lao government is committed to ensuring that the concerns of each member country and the international community are reasonably and logically addressed,'' said Mr Viraphonh.

''Laos expects and hopes that, by virtue of its having proceeded with the full course of procedures under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, it has set a good example for other MRC members to follow and that those countries, acting together, can continue to work on matters of mutual importance.''

The Save the Mekong coalition called on the Laos government to immediately halt construction at the dam site and for the Thai government to cancel its plans to purchase the dam's electricity. ''The Save the Mekong coalition fears the pro ject is in fact continuing to move forward, given a recent investigative report by the Bangkok Post on April 17, which revealed that preliminary construction work had already started at the dam site and the process for further regional discussion remains unclear,'' the group said.

They also asked Asean's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to investigate the Xayaburi dam.

''We urge Asean's leaders to demonstrate their commitment to regional cooperation by calling for the cancellation of the Xayaburi dam,'' said Trinh Le Nguyen, of Vietnam's People and Nature Reconciliation.

''Regional cooperation within Asean and the Mekong River Commission will not be realised if member nations do not follow the agreed decision-making process and respect the need for mutual benefits.''