Work underway on contested mega-dam: Laos official

Mekong River is so beautiful but will destroyed by dams:


BANGKOK — Laos has begun work on a controversial multi-billion dollar dam, an official confirmed Thursday, defying objections from environmentalists in its bid to become a regional energy hub.

Construction on the main part of the $3.8 billion hydroelectric project at Xayaburi — stalled for about 18 months over concerns about its impact — formally began after Laos said it had adapted the design to assuage its neighbours’ fears.

“We started working on the river yesterday after a ground-breaking ceremony,” deputy energy minister Viraphonh Viravong told AFP, refuting a previous report that the country’s Prime Minister had said work had not begun.

The project, led by Thai group CH Karnchang, has sharply divided the four Mekong nations — Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand — who rely on the river system for fish and irrigation.

Thailand has agreed to buy most of the electricity generated by the dam, but Cambodia and Vietnam have raised fears it could ruin their farming and fishing industries.

Laos has said the project is on course to be completed by the end of 2019.

“The ambassadors of Vietnam and Cambodia were there at the ceremony yesterday,” Viraphonh said, responding to a question over whether Laos’ neighbours had complained about the official start of construction.

Communist Laos, one of the world’s most under-developed nations, believes the dam will help it become “the battery of Southeast Asia” by selling electricity to its richer neighbours.

But environmentalists say the project will be disastrous for the 60 million people who depend on the river for transportation, food and economy.

They fear Mekong fish species will become endangered as vital nutrients are trapped and dozens of species are prevented from swimming upstream to mating grounds.

Urging further study into its likely impact, Li Lifeng of the WWF conservation group on Wednesday said the region should make a stand now or “risk resting the future of the Mekong on flawed analysis… that could have dire consequences for millions of people.”

Vietnam and Cambodia have refrained from criticising the start of construction, and both have backed Laos to stick to a pledge to halt work if a negative ecological impact is detected.

Thai senators, however, were outspoken on Thursday, saying construction should be suspended for at least a decade pending further scientific studies.

“The lives of 60 million people will be wrecked and catastrophically destroyed. It is an act of sabotage to the Mekong River which is the nature’s treasure”, said Senator Prasan Marukpitak, the head of an environment subcommittee.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved

Laos: pressing ahead with the Mekong dam despite concerns

November 8, 2012 11:14 am
By Jake Maxwell Watts and Nguyen Phuong LinhAs construction starts on a controversial hydropower project in Laos, it becomes clearer by the day that this poor and underdeveloped country is likely to place its ambition to be the “battery of south-east Asia” above any cost to the environment – and that price will be considerable.Construction of a large dam on the Mekong river at Xayaburi began this week despite environmental concerns, which shows a change in attitude from the government that may signal likely endorsement of other foreign-sponsored hydropower projects.

Nguyen Huu Thien, from Mekong Wetlands, a non-governmental organisation in Vietnam, said that Xayaburi would be “a very bad precedent for other decisions on this issue.” The largely Thai-funded project is the first of 11 waiting for approval. Nguyen said he expects the other dams to be approved soon.

Laos is a tiny landlocked country of just 6m with a languid Leninist government which increasingly feels it has little option but to invest in hydropower to feed its richer neighbours’ appetites for electricity and fuel its own economic growth. The World Bank calculated in 2010 that Laos could become a middle-income country if it achieved 7.5 per cent growth over the next ten years. Hydropower and mining contributed to 2.5 percentage points of the 7 per cent annual growth between 2007 and 2010, and it looks set to be even more valuable in the next decade.

The final decision to begin construction of the $3.5bn Xayaburi dam was announced on Tuesday by the Lao deputy energy minister – although the prime minister swiftly denied it – as an Asia-Europe trade summit convenes this week in the Laotian capital, Vientiane. The dam has been delayed since 2010 amid concerns that fish stocks and the livelihood of millions would be threatened on the region’s most important river, the Mekong. Environmental groups have been highly critical of research so far into the possible environmental impact, but the government appears unwilling to delay any longer.

International Rivers, a campaign group, has also expressed concern about Laos’s poor record of public sector corruption.

The Mekong River runs from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and is the largest source of freshwater fish in the world, according to the Mekong River Commission. Four dams already exist in the faster moving Upper Mekong, but the Xayaburi dam will be the first to be built in the lower area. The MRC estimated in 2011 that the full hydropower potential of the Lower Mekong Basin was over 30,000 MW (more than enough to power Bangkok) – and less than 10 per cent has been developed so far.

There has been no comment on the dam’s approval from Vietnam and Cambodia yet, which both previously opposed the project, although the Lao energy minister Viraphonh Viravong said that he could “sense that Vietnam and Cambodia now understand how we have addressed their concerns”, referring to amendments to the original plans which try to resolve some environmental issues.

The Thais, meanwhile, have reinforced their support for the project, albeit in an understated way, when the foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Tuesday that “the Thai government is not opposed to the project.”

The Xayaburi dam is a joint venture between Thai companies CH Karnchang, PTT and a state-owned enterprise. Thailand is expected to import around 90 per cent of the power generated by the dam when it is completed in 2019.

Despite rising demand in the region for electricity, particularly renewables, previous investments in hydropower have not always been successful. The Mun River dam in northern Thailand, on a Mekong tributary, went over-budget when it was built in the 1990s and caused widespread environmental damage for little benefit to investors.

Laos clearly has ambitions to be a regional electricity exporter and much foreign investment is being attracted for building projects, but opposition groups may find it difficult in a region where securing economic growth is a priority not easily curbed. In the immediate future, the profits may roll in for Laos, but the eventual price may be much higher.

Related reading:
Mekong river dam decision delayed
, FT (2011)
Mekong dam project suffers further setback
, FT (2011)

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