Archive for May 9th, 2012

May 9, 2012

Xayaburi dam may have the Mekong boiling over

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Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation May 9, 2012 1:00 am

The Mekong could become a river of conflict if countries, notably those in the lower basin, fail to find an effective mechanism to balance demand with the resources available.

Laos’s controversial plan to build a hydropower dam in the mainstream of the mighty river has ignited a new dispute among riparian states as countries downstream are worried about the consequence it would have on the environment and people’s livelihood.

The Xayaburi Dam will be built in mainstream Mekong, approximately 150 kilometres downstream of Luang Prabang, and will have an installed capacity of 1,280MW, most of which would be exported to Thailand. This 810-metre long, 32m-high concrete structure is one of the many dams in mainstream Mekong that Laos plans to build and some will be done as joint ventures with Thailand.

Cambodian Resource and Meteorology Minister Lim Kean Hor sent a letter to Vientiane late last month asking for the project to be delayed until a comprehensive study of the environmental impact is completed.

If Laos goes ahead with the construction, he said it would violate the trust and goodwill of Mekong countries.

People who live along the Mekong River’s right bank in eight Thai provinces are strongly opposed to the dam and are calling on Laos to pay heed to their concerns.

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – the four countries in the Lower Mekong Basin – signed a pact in April 1995 to work together for the sustainable development of the region. It was under this agreement that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was created to help coordinate and oversee the correct utilisation of the river.

Articles 5, 6 and 26 of the 1995 agreement have clear rules about the utilisation of water in the mainstream body of the river during the wet and dry seasons, as well as the diversion of water from the Mekong.

If the huge Xayaburi dam is built to block the river, it will first need to comply with paragraph B of Article 5, which requires Laos – as a user of the Mekong River – to have “prior consultation which aims at arriving at an agreement by the joint committee”. In other words, Laos needs permission from other members of the MRC to build the dam.

According to Laos Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong, however, Vientiane did consult the joint committee last year and, therefore, has the right to continue with the project. He added that Laos had not breached the 1995 pact and had complied with all the regulations.

However, downstream MRC members are not satisfied with the project assessment because they believe the dam will pose a threat to fish migration, navigation and the sedimentation of the Mekong River.

Fish means food for riparian communities, while sedimentation is badly needed in downstream countries to fertilise their crops.

Yet, Viravong insists the Xayaburi is an environmentally friendly dam, offering ladders for migrating fish, gates for the passage of boats and a flushing system to release sediment downstream.

However, these features are not enough to make downstream countries feel confident about the dam, and they are calling on the MRC to conduct detailed studies on the environmental impact. The MRC has said it will conduct the study this year, but it may not have specific answers for this particular dam.

Viravong, meanwhile, insists that Laos has already conducted detailed studies on the dam’s environmental impact and is ready to redesign it so it has a minimum impact on downstream countries, yet locals down the river are still saying no.

May 9, 2012

Mekong Panel Calls for Construction Freeze

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Photo: AFR
A map showing Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos.

Construction on the controversial Xayaburi dam must await further study, a regional body says.

A four-nation commission which manages development along Southeast Asia’s Mekong River asserted Tuesday that Laos must not proceed with construction of a controversial dam on the regional artery.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) countries agreed that construction on the Xayaburi dam must be suspended, a spokesman from the regional body said Tuesday, amid concerns among green groups that the hydro-electricity project could wreck the environment.

Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam acknowledge that Xayaburi project needs further study before it can be built, spokesman Surasack Glahan said, reiterating an earlier agreement among the four in December.

“All four Lower Mekong countries are still on the same page; that is, that the project needs more study on its impact, [as do] all projects on Mekong River,” Surasack Glahan, a communications officer at the MRC secretariat in Vientiane, Laos, said Tuesday.

He added that the MRC members are consulting with one another on how to conduct the study on the environmental impact of the proposed dam, which would be the first on the mainstream part of the Lower Mekong River.

The spokesman’s comments came after Thai company Ch. Karnchang, having begun preliminary work around the project site in March, announced in April that it had signed a contract with Xayaburi Power Co. for building the dam, despite the MRC agreement to wait for the study.

“Despite the contract, the construction of the Xayaburi dam must stop until the new study is completed,” Glahan said.


Ch. Karnchang’s announcement prompted protests from civil society groups in Thailand, where 95 percent of the energy generated by the

Xayaburi dam would be sent. The protesters demonstrated at the company’s headquarters last month and at an international MRC conference in Phuket, Thailand last week.

Cambodia has also expressed opposition to the dam, lodging its complaint in a letter to Lao MRC representatives last week.

Through the MRC, established in 1995, the four Mekong countries have agreed to a protocol for consulting with and notifying each other about use of the river’s resources. But the organization has no binding jurisdiction, leaving open the possibility that Laos could move ahead on the dam without regional agreement.

The Lao government has given few official statements on the status of the project or its future.

Last week, Laos’s Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said at an international MRC conference in Thailand that Laos had already consulted with its neighbors and no more study was necessary.

“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,” Thailand’s The Nation newspaper quoted the minister as saying.

“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,” he said, according to the newspaper.

Opponents of the project are concerned that the dam, which would block fish migration on Southeast Asia’s main waterway, could not only impact the lives of millions in the region who rely on the river for their food and their livelihoods, but also pave the way for other hydropower projects on the river.

At least 11 other dams have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.

Six of them are in Laos, which, with over 70 hydropower dams in total planned on its rivers, has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.

Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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