PM must stop Xayaburi dam

Bangkok Post 21 July 2012

A controversial hydropower project on the Mekong River is on the brink of causing regional conflict. The Xayaburi project in Laos is the first of 11 dams planned on the lower Mekong and would hurt fisheries, agriculture and food security downstream in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

For a brief moment on July 13, Thailand and Laos received praise from the region's governments. Lao Foreign Minister Thongsing Thammavong announced that the Lao government had decided to postpone the project pending further studies. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also declared: "We will study together the scope of the impact along the Mekong and we will see what the impact is."

Although the Xayaburi dam is located in Laos, it is also a Thai project. The Thai government, through the state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), has agreed to purchase 95% of the dam's electricity. Thai banks, including state-owned Krung Thai Bank, have agreed to finance the project. A Thai company, Ch Karnchang, is building the dam. Ordinary Thai people are not aware that their money is being used to advance a project that will bring harm to our fellow citizens and people throughout the Mekong subregion.

Now it appears that Laos has already broken its promise to neighbouring countries. On Monday and Tuesday, its Energy and Mines Ministry hosted a delegation of foreign governments near the dam site. According to sources who attended the meeting, Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong explicitly told the delegation that the dam's construction will continue as scheduled and that the dam will be built.

The delegates observed significant construction activity at the site. The Mekong River Commission confirmed, for example, that "the project is in an advanced preparation stage, with exploratory excavation in and around the river completed".

The dam does not need to be finished to cause harm. Even before the river is fully blocked, construction activities at the dam site will disturb the river enough to significantly affect migrating fish populations and people in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Because so much is at stake, the governments in the Mekong subregion are required under a 1995 treaty to jointly reach agreement before the Xayaburi dam goes forward. The four governments have not yet approved the project.

More than one year ago, the Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese governments requested that Laos study the project's transboundary impacts before any decision is made on whether to proceed. Mr Viraphonh told the delegation this week that Laos will not study the project's transboundary impacts.

Thais share responsibility with Laos for this potentially disastrous project. The project depends on the Thai government's support to go forward, just as postponing the project depends on the will of Bangkok.

It remains to be seen what Prime Minister Yingluck will do. Doing nothing, however, is equivalent to allowing the project to go forward.

In order to press the issue, Thai people are planning to bring a lawsuit against the Thai government in the coming weeks, accusing Egat of signing an agreement to purchase power from the Xayaburi project in violation of their constitutional rights and national laws.

The Senate and the National Human Rights Commission have also held investigations. The commission released a statement in May calling upon the prime minister to conduct an investigation into the project's impacts and "suspend any actions based on [Egat's power purchase agreement] until the investigation will be fully completed, in order to prevent human rights violations and illegality, prioritise the public interest and prevent negative risks that may affect the people".

It is now time for Ms Yingluck to act decisively. She has the power to stop this project by cancelling the power purchase agreement, ordering Ch Karnchang to stop construction activities while further studies are conducted, and asking Thai banks to suspend their financing until a final decision has been made.

Let's not forget what is at stake here. If the Xayaburi dam goes forward, it is likely to be followed by 10 more dams on the Mekong River. According to a 2010 study commissioned by the Mekong River Commission, if all 11 proposed dams are built, the economic and social impact would be devastating for 40 million people in all four countries.

Between 26% and 42% of fisheries would be lost, leading to economic losses of about US$476 million (15.23 billion baht) a year. Flooding of fertile agricultural land and decreased agricultural production would cost about $49 million a year. More than two million people who live along the river would be in jeopardy of losing their food security.

The high risks merit a more cautious approach from our leaders. Can the Thai people rely on our government to pay attention to its national and international obligations? Let's hope so.

Pianporn Deetes is Thailand campaign coordinator at International Rivers, an environmental and human rights organisation based in the United States. She can be contacted at pai@internationalrivers.org