Damming the Mekong River

Even as a multilateral commission on damming the Mekong River continues to argue over whether a major dam on the river should go forward, environmentalists are charging that the Laotian government has already allowed a Thai company to begin site preparation and resettle villagers.

Located in a remote mountainous province, the Xayaburi Dam is the most advanced of 11 dams proposed to be built on the main stream of the Mekong, one of the world’s great rivers. Environmentalists argue that the hydropower dam would have a devastating effect on a wide variety of fish species, block the route for at least 23 migratory fish species to travel to the upper reaches of the river, and affect the livelihoods of millions of people who live downstream from the proposed 810-meter-long dam, which is expected to generate 1,260 megawatts of power, 95 percent of which is to be exported to Thailand. The Laotian government has awarded a 29-year concession to a Thai firm to build and operate the dam.

"That project preparations have already commenced on the Xayaburi Dam demonstrates the company's and the Lao government's complete disregard for the findings of the Mekong River Commission’s Strategic Environmental Assessment report," said Ame Trandem, a Mekong Campaigner with International Rivers.

The environmentalists charge that the dam would also forcibly resettle more than 2,100 villagers, who are being offered as little as US$15 each to leave the dam’s catchment area.

Last Tuesday, representatives on the Mekong River Commission from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam were unable to reach a consensus on a proposal to build the dam, agreeing to consult with their respective governments on how to proceed.

However, the final decision still rests with Laos, meaning the proposal to dam a stretch of the Mekong in northern Laos could well push forward regardless of opposition from its neighbors or environmentalists.

A meeting in Vientiane Tuesday marked the end of a mandatory six-month consultation process involving Laos and its neighbors. Under the commission, which the four countries formed in 1995 as a means of promoting sustainable development on the shared waterway, any country building projects on the mainstream river must hold consultations in affected countries.

The issue has exposed rifts between Laos and Vietnam, traditionally close allies, with Vietnamese officials warning that the dam could have a significant impact downstream.

In a statement issued by the MRC following Tuesday’s meeting, Vietnamese officials said they had "deep and serious concerns" about the project. Le Duc Trung, director general of Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee, said Laos’s assessments of the dam’s far-reaching effects have been inadequate. He called for all dam proposals for the lower Mekong, including Xayaburi, to be shelved for 10 years.

"The deferment would enable the country to secure better understanding and the confidence of the public and local communities," he was quoted as saying.

In their official responses, both Cambodia and Thailand called for the current consultation process to be extended. Cambodia said there was a need to study how mainstream dams would affect the environment beyond Laos’s borders and that mitigation measures needed to be more clearly developed. Thailand said the six-month consultation process has been insufficient and that it was worried how people who depend on the river will be affected.

"We would like to see that public views and concerns are well taken into consideration," Jatuporn Buruspat, director general of the Thai Department of Water Resources, said as part of Thailand’s official response.

Laos itself argued against formally extending the consultation process, saying that any new studies would take much longer than six months.

"We appreciate all comments, but we will consider to accommodate all concerns," Viraphonh Viravong, head of the Lao delegation to the consultations, said in a statement issued by the MRC. In the statement, the Laotian official suggested the project would comply with the commission’s design guidelines and conform to international standards.

"Major impacts on navigation, fish passage, sediment, water quality and aquatic ecology and dam safety can be mitigated at acceptable levels," the statement read.

However, a series of reports have called such assurances into question. Several expert working groups the MRC put together to examine the Xayaburi proposal have highlighted problems with elements of the plan.

An MRC summary of the concerns noted that the current project design does not in fact meet international best practices or even the MRC’s own guidelines for water quality and ecosystem health.

Loss of sediment caused by the dam’s reservoir, the report stated, could see it lose 60 percent of its capacity solely due to sedimentation within 30 years. An analysis released by the conservation group WWF this month called Laos’s original environmental impact assessment and feasibility study for the project "substandard".

The analysis said the EIA only identified five migratory species in the Mekong when there are more than 200 species that use parts of the river for their spawning grounds, including 70 migratory species. The EIA also doesn’t take into account how the loss of fish abundance will affect communities living downstream of the dam, the analysis stated.

This article has been adapted from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.