The Nation 4 May 2012
By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Phuket - Laos said yesterday it would not make a final decision on construction of the Xayaburi dam in the main stream body of the Mekong River before approval by the international community and countries in the Lower Mekong basin over environment concerns.
Work on the site by the Thai construction company Ch Karnchang was just preparation, mostly in the primary and exploration stage, said Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong.
Laos has proposed building the Xayaburi Dam on the main stream Mekong, about 150 km downstream from Luang Prabang, to generate 1,260MW of power, mainly for export to Thailand.
Laos has followed guidance under the 1995 Mekong agreement following prior consultation with other members within six months - a period that ended in April of last year.
"Laos has complied with the regulations and taken all concerns made by member countries into account and found the project caused no serious damage to the river and environment," Viraphonh said.
However many members, notably Cambodia and Vietnam, which are downstream from the site, as well as civic groups in Thailand, remain concerned over fish migration and sediment. Consequently the Lao authority has conducted further studies on the environment, Viraphonh said.
A Swiss consultant recommended flushing as a way to release sediment downstream and more fish ladders to allow fish migration, he said.
A French dam operator was hired as a consultant to review environment impact and a report by this consultant was sent to other members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) a week ago, he said.
The consultant suggested regularly opening of flushing ways to release sediment every month - but that would cause a halt in electricity generating.
"We will address and take into account all reasonable concerns in order to make this Xayaburi dam a transparent dam and a role model for other dams in the mainstream of the Mekong River," Viraphonh told reporters.
The design of the Xayaburi dam was modified to make it an environment-friendly hydropower project, he said. "Even the turbine to generate electricity was a fish friendly version," he said.
Modification and adjustment of the dam could slightly raise construction costs, he said and noted the Lao government was consulting with Ch Karnchang if the company could absorb the cost, he said.
The Lao minister was in Phuket yesterday for an international conference on transboundary river management in which executives from 14 international river systems around the world participated.
In the messages they would send to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro next month, the executives emphasised that 'nexus' would be a key consideration for regional stability on water, food and energy.
One of the nine points in the message said "in addressing the nexus it is recognised that water management needs to respect the basin and aquifer as the basic unit, from the smallest catchment to the major transboundary basins."
"Hence the opportunities and trade-off of the nexus need to be addressed at the basin level, and transboundary river basin and aquifer management entities should be empowered to play their role in influencing national decisions."
MRC chief executive officer Hans Guttman said an empowered river management body had been experienced in the Niger River [in Africa].
However, such an example might not fit the circumstances of the Mekong River when conflict among members over the transboundary impact of their respective development projects is considered.