Laos proceeding with opposed dam, environmentalists charge

Deutsche Presse-Agentur 23 June 2011

Bangkok – Laos has given a Thai company a green light to proceed with a hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River despite opposition to the project from neighbouring countries, an environmentalist group said Thursday.

The Lao government in a letter dated June 8 informed the Xayaburi project developer Ch Karnchang that the Mekong River Commission had completed its review of the project, the International Rivers group said, citing a leaked copy of the letter it said it had received.

The commission, a regional body that overseas the joint development of the waterway, on April 19 agreed to defer a decision on the Xayaburi project to a ministers meeting, likely to take place in October or November.

'By deciding unilaterally that the regional decision-making process is complete, the government of Laos has committed an egregious breach of trust,' said Ame Trandem of International Rivers.

Representatives of Vietnam and Cambodia in April raised concerns that the project, the first such hydroelectric dam planned on the mainstream Mekong in central Laos, could have an adverse impact on downstream fisheries and sedimentation.

The Mekong originates in southern China and passes through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

After the April 19 meeting, Laos agreed to hire an international consultant to study its neighbours' concerns over the Xayaburi project. According to International Rivers, Laos hired the international consultancy group Poyry, which has already conducted a one-month study of the environmental impact of the Xayaburi project and given its go-ahead.

'It's outrageous that Laos would stoop so low as to place its consultant's opinions above its neighbors' concerns,' Trandem said.

Under a commission agreement signed in 1995 by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, any country planning to build a dam on the mainstream Mekong must consult the commission beforehand.

But after the consultation, new dams could be built even without the approval of the commission.

Laos, one of the world's poorest countries, is rich in water resources which it plans to transform into hydroelectricity to export to neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam to drive its economic growth in the coming decades.

The Xayaburi project is one of 11 dams proposed on the lower Mekong River, seven of which would be in Laos, two in Cambodia and two on the river where it forms the border between Laos and Thailand.