Laos is starting construction of a massive hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River in defiance of opposition from neighbouring countries worried about the potential impact on fisheries and agriculture.
Lao government officials oversaw a groundbreaking ceremony at the Xayaburi dam site on Wednesday, saying they have addressed concerns about the $3.5-billion project expressed by neighbouring states, especially Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as environmental organizations.
“It has been assessed, it has been discussed the last two years. We have addressed most of the concerns,” Laos’ Deputy Minister of Energy and Mining, Viraphonh Viravong, was quoted as saying.
This is misleading, Kirk Her-bertson, Southeast Asia coordinator for the environmental group International Rivers, told the Reuters news agency.
“The studies that have been conducted are not yet finished,” he said.
The Xayaburi dam has been a contentious regional issue since Laos proposed it as part of a project to make what is one of the region’s poorest countries the “Battery of Southeast Asia.” It is the first of 11 hydroelectric dams planned for the middle reaches of the 4,900 kilometre – long Mekong , which rises in China and flows through Laos, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia before spilling into the South China Sea through the Nine Dragons delta in Vietnam.
About 60 million people depend for their livelihoods on the Mekong, which is the world’s largest fresh water fishery and whose silt-laden waters are essential to agriculture, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The fear is the Xayaburi dam will disrupt fish migrations and hold back the flow of silt, which revives farmers’ fields and rice paddies at times of annual flood.
This anxiety has been sharpened by evidence of degradation of the river’s flow and fish stocks as a result of the building of dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong in China.
China went ahead with these projects without conferring with its neighbours who, in 1995, agreed to consult with each other before going ahead with large projects on the river.
Under pressure from its neighbours, especially Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos agreed last December to defer the start of dam construction pending a new environmental impact report by Japan.
But that study has not been completed. And although the Lao government says it has revised a fish ladder to help migrating fish pass the dam, and will install a system that would flush sediment downstream, neighbours are not convinced.
Hans Guttman, chief executive of the Mekong River Commission which works for the four lower-Mekong countries, was quoted last week as saying Laos has not given his organization revised blueprints for the dam.
From the start, Laos has shown a determination to go ahead with the project despite the concerns of its neighbours.
Lao officials have repeatedly underlined that the 1995 agreement only requires their government to consult with neighbours, which they claim they have done.
It does not give neighbouring states a veto over their plans, Laos says.
Vietnam’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment met Lao Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong at the end of last month in a last-ditch effort to delay the start of construction of the dam until impact studies can be completed.
Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony was his answer. Lao officials say construction of the cofferdam preliminary to building the main structure will begin immediately.
Work on access roads and other infrastructure associated with the dam has been going on for two years.
Laos has been under quiet pressure from Thailand to get on with the Xayaburi project.
Thailand is expected to buy about 95 per cent of the electricity generated by the dam, which is due to be completed in 2019.
Thailand is also deeply involved in the construction of the project.
The main contractors are C.H. Karnchang, Thailand’s second largest building company, which has a 57 per cent share in the project.
Two Thai energy and electricity companies are also involved.