Despite the opposition of three governments and an array of environmentalists and public service groups from across the planet, the Xayaburi Dam, deep inside the mountains of northern Laos on the lower Mekong River, appears to be almost unstoppable.
The Thai energy company Ch. Karnchang is said to be pressing ahead with the dam, to be built to supply electricity to the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand despite the fact that the Mekong River Commission, comprising water and environmental ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam agreed to a ban on further construction in December while a more comprehensive environmental study of the dam is completed.
However, according to the Berkeley, California- based environmental organization International Rivers, their investigation of the site reveals work is still moving forward. Significant resettlement of villagers in the area has already been undertaken, International Rivers said, despite promises by the energy company that it would comply with the Laotian government’s commitment to postpone construction until there is regional agreement.
The Mekong, which supports the largest freshwater fishery in the world, is being increasingly imperiled by plans for a long series of big dams. The downstream governments are concerned that the Xayaburi and 10 other structures planned for the Mekong, which originates in China and flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, will wreck the fishery and imperil the lives of those who live below it. The river’s silt deposits provide rich soil nutrients for rice and other crops. It feeds a river basin populated by 60 million people. Environmentalists say anywhere between 23 and 100 fish species could be adversely affected.
Ch. Karnchang, however, appears to have signed an agreement a month ago to move ahead on the project despite the objections of the Mekong River Commission, according to media in Thailand, despite the fact that Virapong Viravong, the Laotian Vice Minister for Energy and Mines, said the dam may have to be redesigned to avoid any adverse impact on the environment.
The Chiang Rai-based Lower Mekong People’s Network, a group of riparian communities opposed to the construction from seven different provinces in Thailand along the Mekong, said they would launch a lawsuit on July 9 against the construction after collecting signatures from hundreds of people who say they will be negatively affected by the construction. The organization has been holding a series of rallies and protest meetings in the villages that are expected to be adversely affected by both the construction and the dam itself.
The lawsuit alleges the Thai government forged an agreement with Laos to buy electricity generated by the US $3.8 billion dam upon completion, without disclosing the details of the agreement to the public as required by Thai law. The 1,260-megawatt dam would provide 95 percent of its electricity to Thailand.
A Thai villager who spoke to Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity, said that Lao officials had a duty to explain the cross-border ramifications of the massive dam.
“If Lao officials state that the riparian Thais have no reason to protest the dam, that is inappropriate because the Lao authorities haven’t explained to us villagers about the possible cross-border impacts,” the villager said. “When those impacts occur, who will be responsible? Studies show that the dam will have negative impacts on people downstream, especially people in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.”
“International Rivers found construction activities underway during a visit last week to the dam site and 15 affected villages,” said Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers.
“Recent activities include dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed at the dam site, the construction of a large concrete retaining wall, and an increase in the company’s local labor force. One village, Houay Souy, was already resettled from the dam’s planned spillway to near Xayaboury town in January 2012.”
Ch Karnchang, Trandem said, “has blatantly defied the diplomatic process underway to decide on the future of the Mekong River. The company has violated the trust of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, with apparent impunity.”
She charged that Aswin Kongsiri, the Ch. Karnchang Board of Directors chairman, had told newspapers the company would to wait for all stakeholders in the Greater Mekong Subregion to agree before going ahead, and that the company had not yet started construction.
“We have thus focused on project preparation, mainly financing and the environmental impact report.” Aswin told the Bangkok Post. These claims came weeks after the Lao government publicly announced that dam construction had been postponed and only “preliminary construction” such as building access roads had taken place.
“The definition of ‘preliminary’ keeps expanding,” said Kirk Herbertson, Mekong Campaigner for International Rivers,” in a prepared news release. “Ripping up the riverbed and resettling entire villages cannot be considered a preliminary activity.”
International Rivers interviewed resettled families from the village Houay Souy in the path of the dam and, the organization said, found a series of broken promises. The resettled families have yet to receive new agricultural land and have been required to spend much of their own compensation money to finish building the houses that were provided to them.
Ch. Karnchang also reneged on a promise to provide one year of free electricity and water, the organization said. “Instead villagers were provided only one month free. The company has informed other villages that they will be moved as soon as December 2012, but said they will not compensate the villagers for the loss of fisheries, access to agricultural land, gold panning, and other major sources of food and income, in violation of Lao law.”
Teerapong Pomun, Director of Thai NGO Living River Siam, who joined the trip to the dam site, said, “Even at this early stage, the Xayaburi Dam is causing harm to local people and the environment. Ch. Karnchang needs to be held accountable for its irresponsible and illegal behavior. It’s only a matter of time before the damage to the river’s ecosystem and fisheries begins to impact downstream countries like Thailand, something the company has failed to even take into account.”