Laos officially starts work on Xayaburi dam

Bangkok Post 7 November 2012

US slams project but Bangkok stance neutral

WASHINGTON | Vientiane's decision to build the first dam across the lower Mekong River has elicited different reactions from the United States and its closest regional ally Thailand.

Bangkok has officially taken a neutral stance but Washington has criticised the US$3.5 billion (108 billion baht) Xayaburi dam project. Environmentalists warn the dam could affect tens of millions of livelihoods, block migration routes for up to 100 fish species and trigger a dam-building spree along Southeast Asia's mightiest waterway. The US has urged a moratorium on such projects until studies into the environmental impacts are completed.

But Laos has announced its intention to begin construction, despite lingering concerns.

''The extent and severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an ecosystem that provides food security and livelihoods for millions are still unknown,'' the State Department said. ''We hope that the government of Laos will uphold its pledge to work with its neighbours in addressing remaining questions regarding Xayaburi.''

The State Department added that the Mekong River Commission has not yet reached consensus on whether the project should go ahead.

Laos' close ally Vietnam opposes the project, and has urged at least a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams on the Mekong.

But hydropower is a key source of revenue for Vientiane _ and as one of Asia's poorest nations, Laos finds dam projects difficult to resist.

The Xayaburi dam will generate electricity for sale to Thailand, whose power demands are growing rapidly. Around 90% of the electricity generated by the dam will be exported to Thailand. Laos' chief partner in the project is Ch Karnchang Public Co Ltd, a Thai company.

Speaking at the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) in the Lao capital on Monday, the Thai foreign minister signalled that Bangkok will not oppose the project, and is satisfied with efforts to mitigate the environmental impacts.

''The Lao government has already conducted studies that show there would be no impact on the environment and fisheries,'' Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichachaikul said.

But opponents say the dam is just the first step in a planned building spree of up to 10 more dams on the 4,800km-long river that flows through Laos and Cambodia. Environmentalists say dam-building will degrade the region's fragile ecology and destroy the livelihoods of residents who rely on its fish and its water for irrigation.

China has placed three dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong and more are planned, but otherwise the mainstream flows freely.

An approach road and other facilities for the Xayaburi dam project are already being built.

Lao Deputy Energy Minister Viraphonh Virawong has said that full construction will formally begin today. A ceremony is planned in Xayaburi to mark the start of riverbed construction. The date was chosen to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, government sources said.

Mr Viraphonh said that modifications had been made to the design of the dam to address concerns over its environmental impact.

The dam will cut across a stretch of the river flanked by forested hills, cliffs and hamlets where ethnic minority groups reside in Xayaburi province, forcing the relocation of about 2,100 villagers and impacting many more.

Environmentalists say that in addition to disrupting fish migrations, the dam will block the flow of nutrients to downstream farmland. Critics also say the dam could hurt Vietnam's rice farmers by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta.

In December, members of the Mekong River Commission's council, consisting of water and environment ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, urged a delay to allow further studies on how to mitigate the environmental impact of the dam.

But Mr Viraphonh said ''there is no need for ... formal approval'' from Laos' Mekong neighbours that also rely on the river's natural resources.