Govt to review Xayaboury dam concerns

Vientiane Times 12 May 2011

By Ekaphone Phouthounesy

Laos will not make any decisions on the construction of the first hydropower dam in the lower Mekong River until it reviews all the concerns of neighbouring countries, according to a senior official from the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

“The government has agreed to hire an independent consultant to review all concerns of neighbouring countries before deciding whether to allow construction of the power plant,” Electricity Department Director General Mr Viraphonh Viravong said in an exclusive interview with Vientiane Times yesterday.

Mr Viraphonh, who led the Lao delegation in the joint Mekong River Commission (MRC) committee special session on construction of the Xayaboury dam last month, said the consultant will review all concerns of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam on the development project, whether they are logical or not.

The consultant will also provide recommendations to the government and project developers on how to address all the concerns of neighbouring countries, particularly any possible negative cross-border impacts of the project.

Mr Viraphonh said the government has not set a deadline for the consultant to complete the review, but it is expected that the mission should not take more than one year, as the project needs to proceed.

It is unacceptable for the Lao government to spend 10 years studying the transboundary negative impacts of the project, as many people earlier proposed, he said.

There are five issues Laos needs to address before making a decision on whether to build the 810 metre-long and 32m-high dam on the Mekong River, namely fish passage, sediment mitigation, navigation, water quality and dam safety.

MRC member countries were satisfied with all measures to address the impact of the dam except fish migration and sediment mitigation, he said, adding that the project developer will build a system to facilitate fish passage.

However, Mr Viraphonh said neighbouring countries still question whether all fish would be able to use the facilities and whether biodiversity can be maintained in the upper Mekong River.

The Xayaboury dam would not cause the retention of large amounts of sediment, he said, adding that there were ways to allow sediment to flow to the lower Mekong.

Sediment is a main source of food for aquatic life and there is concern that any decline would threaten fish supply, a major food source for people who live downstream, particularly in Cambodia.

Neighbouring countries should not be concerned about an insufficient supply of water downstream since the dam would not store a large amount of water, Mr Viraphonh said.

The Xayaboury dam reservoir would be one twentieth the size of the Nam Ngum reservoir.

According to the MRC, the Xayaboury dam has a reservoir area of 49sq km and live storage of 225 Mm3.

In 2007, the Lao government signed a memorandum of understanding with two Thai companies, Ch. Karnchang Public Construction Company and PT Construction Company, allowing them to conduct a technical study and survey of the project's environmental and social impacts.

The Thai government gave the green light to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand to negotiate a tariff agreement with the project developer in July last year.