Xayaburi Dam Approval Sought

On Dec. 7-9 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the Mekong River Commission is set to debate whether to approve the controversial US$3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam, the first major project of 11 planned for the lower Mekong River.

The dam, being pushed by the Thai and Laotian governments, is opposed by a wide array of environmental organizations that charge it would threaten fisheries and food security for the 60 million people who live in the Mekong River Basin.

International Rivers, a California-based environmental NGO, is complaining that the Laotian government is using what it calls a biased report by a Swiss company, Poyry Energy AG, in an effort to gain approval from regional ministers to build the proposed dam.

The Mekong River Commission is composed of officials from the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. As the first Mekong mainstream dam to undergo the commission’s prior consultation process, the Xayaburi Dam is likely to set a precedent for how future decisions are made on the 11 proposed mainstream dams, the NGO noted.

According to the rules of the regional consultation process, the Laotian government must respond to requests for information and must wait for the governments to reach a consensus on whether the project goes forward. Environmentalists, however, charge that the Laotians have already started building access roads and construction camps at the dam site.

The dam has been under fire from environmental organizations since it was first proposed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand in November of 2008 with approval from the Laotian government. It is expected to generate as much as 1,220 megawatts of electricity, to be transmitted via a 200-km transmission line to northeastern Thailand.

The project is backed by a flock of major Thai banks and construction companies, particularly Ch. Karnchang, Thailand’s second-largest construction company, which has contracted to build it. Thailand, like most of the growing economies of Asia, is energy-short and sees the Xayaburi Dam as a partial solution to its problems.

However, the governments of both Vietnam and Cambodia have raised concerns, with the Vietnam National Mekong River Committee warning that the completed dam could cause a potential decline of 200,000 to 400,000 tons of fish per year as spawning grounds are cut off.

In May, the Laotian government hired Pöyry Energy do a three-month evaluation of the project’s compliance with the Mekong River Commission’s requirements for Mekong mainstream dams and its procedures for regional decision-making. The review was commissioned in response to the concerns raised by the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam at an April meeting over the dam’s transboundary impacts and the need for further scientific studies and consultation.

In early September, the Lao government announced that the Pöyry report would be presented to neighboring governments as part of a plan to begin full construction on the dam before the end of the year. While the Laotian government has yet to publicly disclose the report, leaked copies have been widely circulated among environmental organizations.

“The Pöyry report sidesteps science and relies instead on guesswork, making it an unsuitable basis for decision-making on the Xayaburi Dam,” said Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia program director. Pöyry, Trandem said, “claims that the project complies with Mekong River Commission guidelines, despite listing over 40 major scientific and technical studies that still need to be completed. It would be irresponsible of Laos and other Mekong countries to support the Xayaburi Dam based on the false claims of this report.”

International Rivers said it has “identified at least 15 fundamental MRC requirements with which the Xayaburi Dam still does not comply. The Pöyry report avoids mentioning many of these requirements, and instead proposes unproven mitigation measures without having basic data about who, what, when, and how much will be impacted.

The NGO accused the report of “greenwashing” the impact on fisheries in opposition to the Mekong River Commission’s own project review, which found that the Xayaburi Dam would threaten 23 to 100 species, affecting fisheries throughout the Mekong River Basin. The MRC’s technical guidelines require that any mainstream dam must include a “fish passage” technology that ensures safe passage for at least 95 percent of key species past the dam.

“Pöyry makes no mention of the 95 percent requirement, and instead touts several technologies that have never been applied on the Mekong River or used successfully in any tropical river,” the NGO charged. “Fishery experts from around the world have concluded that no technology exists to effectively mitigate the impacts mainstream dams would have on the world’s largest inland fishery.”

International Rivers accused the report of numerous other shortcomings in analyzing ecosystems, sediment flows, and dam safety, saying it draws conclusions while simultaneously admitting to large gaps in the baseline studies.

“Despite the fact that no regional decision has been made and a transboundary impact assessment has not been done as requested by neighboring countries,” International Rivers charged. “Pöyry falsely claims that the prior consultation process is already complete, and that the Laotian government can make a unilateral decision on whether the Xayaburi Dam goes forward. Furthermore, Pöyry incorrectly asserts that the Lao government is not required to respond to the concerns of other governments and the MRC about the project’s transboundary impacts before the dam’s construction begins.”

“It’s not surprising Laos has commissioned Pöyry as their hired gun given their long history of involvement in controversial projects in the Mekong region and their close ties to the Xayaburi Dam’s main builder, Ch. Karnchang,” Trandem said. “Poyry and Ch. Karnchang are currently working together on another hydropower project in Laos, the Nam Ngum 2 Dam. It comes as no surprise that Pöyry would give its business partner a positive review, despite strong evidence to the contrary.”