Call for data on controversial dam

Key Issues: 

The Nation 24 January 2011

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee

Chiang Rai residents have called on the authorities to reveal more details about the strategic environmental assessment for the proposed Xayaburi dam in northern Laos, which is likely to affect a huge number of people, as well as the ecology of the Mekong River.

"We need sufficient information from the report to evaluate the environmental impact, so we can make a decision on whether to accept this project," conservationist Hannarong Yaowalers said.

"All information should be released before a public hearing," Hannarong, who sits on the Senate Water Resource Subcommittee, said during a forum sponsored by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Chiang Khong on Saturday.

Thongsuk Intavong, chief of Ban Huay Luek village, which is situated on the Mekong River, said he strongly opposed the hydropower project since it could change a lot of lives in his village and other areas.

"China has already built a lot of dams upstream. Now Laos is preparing to build a lot more downstream. Please tell me, how can we live in the basin?" he said.

Laos plans to open a massive 1.26-gigawatt dam on the Mekong River at Kaeng Luang rapids, some 30 kilometres from northern Xayaburi province.

The Xayaburi dam could block critical fish migration routes to the Mekong's upper stretches as far upstream as northern Thailand, which is an important spawning ground for the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish, according to the International Rivers group.

Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang has signed a concession with the Lao authorities and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand inked an initial purchase agreement last June for 95 per cent of Xayaburi dam's electricity.

In September, Xayaburi became the first mainstream dam project to be submitted for approval by a regional government through a decision-making process called the "Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement", facilitated by the MRC.

A regional decision on whether the dam goes ahead would be made as early as April, MRC expert Vithet Srinetr said.

Xayaburi dam's environmental impact assessment did not mention the trans-border environmental impacts, as it covered only the "project area" in Laos, he told the forum.

However, a SEA report published in October by the MRC recommends that any decision on such dams be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risk and impacts associated with Xayaburi and other dams proposed on the mainstream of the Mekong.

However the Lao government was likely to decide to continue with the project, an official said.

The MRC will sponsor two more consultative meetings on the Mekong dam – in Loei's Chiang Khan next week and in Nakhon Phanom at the end of this month – to gather opinions from local communities that might be affected by the project.