No stopping flow of construction at 'suspended' dam

Bangkok Post 18 September 2011


By Piyaporn Wongruang

Five months after Mekong countries agreed to reconsider the controversial US$3.8 billion (115.25 billion baht) Xayaburi dam project, construction work around the site has continued despite Laos' undertaking to suspend the work.

DIGGING IN: A backhoe bulldozes trees at the dam construction site in Xayaburi.

Bangkok Post Sunday revisited the site and found construction of a major road leading to the dam site is 90% finished. Senior engineers, who asked to remain anonymous, said the road construction was nearly done.

The road is planned to run 30km from Ban Nara village, which is about 17km from Tha Dua pier, where access to Xayaburi province can be gained. The first 10km mountain section from Ban Nara village involves road upgrading. Heavy machinery, including backhoes, are working on the second section clearing earth and paving roads to the planned dam site.

Also: Q&A with dam official

Both sections of the road have been widened to four lanes to allow heavy construction vehicles to pass. The earth has been compacted and is waiting to be surfaced. Only one kilometre of road to the dam site needs to be completed, plus a section to Ban Houay Souy village.

But Viraphonh Viravong, the director-general of the Laos Electricity Department, defended the early work, saying that claims construction had begun were ''not totally correct''.

He said when the site was being surveyed, authorities of Xayaburi and Laung Prabang provinces asked the developers if they could link the ''temporary construction'' of the road to the site.

''Of course, if the project starts, the road will be used,'' said Mr Viraphonh. ''But if not, all the benefits will go to the local authorities, as they will have access roads for a lot of villages.

''As the Lao government has stated at many international conferences and meetings, we will start the project until we reach a happy conclusion with other riparian countries.''

The Mekong River Commission - comprising Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia - asked Laos to suspend work on the Xayaburi dam after concerns were raised about potential harm to rice production and fishing communities along the river.

Laos subsequently commissioned a report by Switzerland-based firm Poyry which recommended the dam project - which stands to generate 1,280 megawatts of electricity - could go ahead.

The dam is being jointly constructed by the Laos government and Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang with 95% of the electricity generated to be sold back to the Kingdom through the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

Mr Viraphonh said the Lao government is waiting for the final report from Poyry, which will be taken to other MRC members and explained in detail.

''We believe the dam can be constructed,'' said Mr Viraphonh. ''I don't see any reason why it would be rejected any more. At the MRC council meeting, we will also report these findings.''

One engineer at the construction site said preparatory work at the site included construction of worker accommodations and the movement of heavy machinery from the Nam Ngum hydropower project, which Ch Karnchang's Lao division was involved with.

There are already 1,000 workers on the Xayaburi site, he said.

Dozens of cement silos can also be seen being transported across the river at Tha Dua. The engineer said they would be installed near the dam site near to help with construction.

The engineers have not started on the actual dam construction, but the foundation area is being examined with soil and rock samples collected for lab tests, the engineer said.

''Dam construction is limited by time following the signing of a contract,'' he said. ''If we don't start doing the work, the overall project might be delayed. After the preparation work, once we receive approval to begin construction of the dam, we will immediately begin work on the dam structure construction.

''We have not worked on it that much. We are waiting for the bell to ring. Hopefully we can hear it at the end of this year,'' said the engineer, adding that they were employed by Ch Karnchang Lao, which was given permission by Xayaburi Power to start work at the site.

Mekong campaigner Pianporn Deetes of International Rivers said Laos should not allow any construction to go ahead as they had made a commitment in April to discuss the project with MRC members.

Mrs Pianporn said the situation showed regulations and mechanisms under the MRC failed to function effectively when put into practice. The MRC only has a vague undertaking that mem ber states should come to a consensus on projects after consultation but there is nothing legally binding.

''The rules and regulations sound great, but it's clear that they cannot help in the Xayaburi case,'' Ms Pianporn said. ''Leaving matters to the governments to deal with alone under the MRC might not be enough for issues that affect a lot of people.

''It may be the time to think about strengthening the public participation process, which includes inviting the voices of those who would be really affected by a development project''.

A source at the MRC said the Lao government notified the organisation that it was hiring a consultancy firm, but it had not forwarded the final report.

He said the new report could accompany the overall consultation process, but it would be reviewed by the MRC.


AWAITING FATE: A shop owner in a village in Xayaburi is among those who will be affected by the dam project.



Villagers who stand to be affected by the Xayaburi dam project on the lower Mekong River have been told little about the project, including where they will live when they are forced to move.

Developer Ch Karnchang Lao hopes to start work by the end of the year on the dam. Roadwork leading to the site has already begun.

But villagers we contacted have been told little more than they knew back in April, when the Mekong River Commission, representing the four Mekong countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, asked the Lao government to put the work on hold until more research was done.

Even engineers involved in building a road to the dam site cannot tell us where the thousands of homes which would have to be relocated to make way for the dam will be moved.

One senior engineer supervising construction pointed to the mountainous areas surrounding the river. ''They will probably be moved up there, as the water will not be able to reach that high,'' he said.

If a resettlement plan has been drawn up, few villagers or engineers know the details.

The Xayaburi dam project is expected to affect directly 1,300 households in Xayaburi and Luang Prabang provinces, and thousands of households downstream when the valley is flooded.

Some villagers have been told about the project by their village heads.

Somboon Phanthaporn, a 57-year-old shop owner and fisherman of Ban Houay Souy, says he knows little.

''I was told only that I would have to move out, away from the river.

''They tell us to leave, so we have to leave,'' said Mr Somboon, who owns a two storey wooden house and a grocery shop in the village.

Officers have visited affected villages to survey properties, but their owners have heard nothing more.

At Ban Talan nearby, which will probably be flooded to make way for the dam, Vanthong Chanthavong, a 51-year-old former village head, has no idea when he and the other villagers will have to move out. ''We were told they will build the dam on the Mekong River and that we will be compensated, with new jobs, electricity, new homes, and new roads,'' he said.

As a villager living in remote area, he said the offers are tempting.

''The people are just happy to hear things like electricity. We don't have it. We just don't know what's really going on, or what will happen next,'' said Mr Vanthong.

Viraphonh Viravong, the director-general of the Laos Electricity Department which is responsible for the Xayaburi dam, said the project would have to be sustainable, and bring benefits to residents. ''Local benefits are very clear - access to roads, health, education, sanitation, water supplies,'' said Mr Viraphonh.

Staff have visited affected villages to conduct a survey. He rejected speculation the villagers would receive as little as US$15 (454 baht) for their homes, saying the government would offer reasonable compensation, including payment for their trees.

''We have many good resettlement laws and regulations which have been applied to previous projects,'' he said.

The same standards would be applied here.

Our request to visit the resettlement site was turned down.

Giving the dam its due

Viraphonh Viravong, the director-general of the Laos Electricity Department which is responsible for the Xayaburi dam, talks about the controversial project

Laos is eager to start construction of the US$3.8 billion (115 billion baht) Thai-financed Xayaburi hydropower plant this year after changing the design to placate the concerns of neighbouring member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).


IN THE HOT SEAT: Viraphonh Viravong, director-general of the Laos Electricity Department.

Thailand has agreed to take 95% of electricity from the 1,285-megawatt capacity plant, which is being jointly built by the Lao government and Thai construction firm CH Karnchang. The greatest opposition has come from Vietnam and Cambodia which have expressed concerns over potential damage to the ecosystem and the livelihoods of Mekong River communities.

In an exclusive report in April, the Bangkok Post Sunday reported that extensive road works for the Xayaburi dam had been under way for five months, although the project had not yet received formal approval from member states of the MRC, which has no punitive or veto powers against member states.

An impact assessment review of the dam commissioned by the Lao government to ease concerns over rice production and fish catches downstream has since been released by Viraphonh Viravong, the director-general of the Laos Electricity Department. The review - conducted by Switzerland-based Poyry Energy AG - has been presented to Vietnam and Mr Viraphonh will meet separately with Thai and Cambodian officials to discuss its recommendations.

After the MRC meeting on the dam project in April, what has Laos done to address the concerns raised by its neighbours?

April 22 was the last day, when the prior consultation process under the Mekong Agreement was supposed to end. But since there have been a lot of concerns from other riparian countries, the Lao government decided to hire the independent international consultant, Poyry of Switzerland to conduct a review - which we call a compliance review - regarding the overall design of the project. This was to check whether the developers and the Lao government have complied with the preliminary design guidelines from the MRCs. More importantly, it looked at whether it was safe to proceed with the project, or whether there are any risks associated with the project.


IT’S ON: A ‘Bangkok Post Sunday’ report in April revealed construction of access roads for the dam had begun.

What were the results of the review?

The work of the independent consultant ... ran from May to August, and we had a workshop with the Lao government. The findings are summarised as follows, on the five areas of concerns.

For dam safety, it was found that it complied with international practice on design, especially with regards to flooding and earthquakes over a 10,000-year period. It found that it's quite safe.

Regarding the water quality ... this should not change at all.

With regard to river navigation, it was designed in accordance with the MRC's preliminary design guidelines. I think, in addition, we will make a provision concerning a ship lock. There is a place to put a second ship lock which is not required by the agreement, but we will make a provision for that.

With regard to fish stocks, they have suggested improvement to the original design, which will include a fish lift and also the use of 'fish-friendly' turbines. Most importantly, we will have fish-breeding stations to restock wherever needed.

The most important issue is sediment transport, which of course, Vietnam is very concerned about as it could directly affect the Mekong Delta.

In the original design, the concept is that after 10 years of operation, a small reservoir capacity, or small trapping capacity, the sediment equilibrium will start to return. This is like any other run-off river scheme. But ... it was suggested that the project add a flushing facility, like the bottom outlets. They have suggested the project build at least five outlets or gates so that during the rainy season there will not be any sediment left. These will be expensive, but they will help resolve the concerns of countries downstream.

The conclusion of the engineers is that the project can start with the modifications to the design.

Of course, additional studies and collection of data during the construction phase would help to make the operation of the project even better.

What does Laos plan to do with these findings?

We will forward them to the other three riparian countries, and we will request to make a presentation to them, just to explain that their concerns are now planned to be addressed. We believe that with the experience and responsibility of the consultant, there will be a guarantee that there will be no significant trans-boundary impact to the downstream region.

This is supposed to be a consultation process, not a specific agreement. We don't need a specific agreement, but as long as we get a good understanding from the three countries and we guarantee that this is a consultation, I believe that we will be able to convince them, and then we will be able to proceed with the development of the Xayaburi dam.

CHANGING COURSE: Lao officials claim the dam will be of tremendous benefit to those living in affected communities.

So why has work already started on the ground?

In any development of hydropower in Laos - in the past 15 years with the private sector - it's always in a remote area. So, we have to build roads. We have to ask for approval for construction of temporary roads from the authorities. And that's what happened. And in this case, during the survey and all these difficulties, the authorities of Xayaburi and Luang Prabang provinces requested that the developers help with the construction of the temporary road to the site.

Of course, when the project starts, the road will be used. But if not, all the benefits will go to the local authorities as they will have access roads for a lot of villages. As the Lao government has stated at many international conferences and meetings, we will not start the project until we complete prior consultation, with a happy conclusion, with other riparian countries.

For the resettlement of people affected by the dam, there are many categories; such as those who are affected by flooding, and those affected by loss of agricultural land. There are many good resettlement laws and regulations in Laos which have been applied to previous projects, which have been implemented successfully ...

In any case, the number of people who would be relocated is small compared to other projects, say Nam Theun 2. This is because it's a run-off river scheme, which has no submerged or flooded area. The flooded area will be the same as the seasonally flooded area.

Why has Laos, the so-called 'Battery of Asia', adopted hydropower to boost development?

By 2015, Asean will be [an] open [market] and we will have to work together. You will see that to be competitive is not that easy, and such competition may not be the best way to develop the country. We have hydropower potential ... which we see as a complementary power resource. Besides, hydropower is the only method to generate electricity while creating an opportunity for water supplies, navigation, tourism or whatever. Hydropower creates those opportunities.

Combining the idea of cooperation instead of competition and having natural resources that are clean and inexpensive such as water, hydropower, that's why we promote the GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion) grid. The more complete the grid, the easier to optimise hydropower in Laos.

What do the people of Laos get from this kind of development?

Local benefits are very clear - access to roads, health, education, sanitation, water supplies. There is a very long list of local benefits. But one important thing we guaranteed with our previous projects, like Nam Theun 2, before the project started, average incomes for local people were less than $200, but after years with our livelihood programmes, we guaranteed that they would increase to $1,200. That's not money we gave to locals, it's people's livelihoods. We teach them how to make a living, a sustainable livelihood. That's very clear.

Besides the local benefits, there are also national benefits and regional benefits.

What does Laos think about the current river governance and the challenges it presents to the country's development ambitions, such as hydropower?

The establishment of the MRC, and the MRC is not an authority that approves projects, that's not the purpose of the establishment of the organisation ... the objective of the 1995 agreement was that the MRC is supposed to be a coordinating body ... so, the MRC is supposed to be a coordinating agency, providing suggestions to the countries that are guidelines or the principles to be used. Don't try to develop it into a big organisation - having everything, spending a lot of money and instead of helping development, becoming a hindrance to development. This is what is happening. We really have to review the situation and make it a more supportive body, not a hindrance. Make it a catalyst of development, not a hindrance.

What Laos would like to see is the ... balance between the development or the use of the Mekong river and conservation. We fell that there is too much inclination toward conservation. However we want to make use of the Mekong, people are against it in different ways. That is not supporting sustainable or responsible use of water.

Will Laos proceed with the Xayaburi project?