Updated at 10.30 p.m. EST on 2012-11-5
Laos says it will officially launch construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam project on the Mekong River this week despite objections from environmental groups and neighboring countries.
Lao deputy energy minister Viraphonh Viravong told the foreign media on Monday that a ground-breaking ceremony for the dam project will be held on Wednesday.
The decision drew criticism particularly from the United States, which cautioned Laos against going ahead with the dam's construction without proper impact studies and in the absence of a consensus within a regional body which manages the development of the Mekong River.
Viraphonh chose to make the announcement on the opening day of a two-day meeting of leaders from Asia and Europe in the Lao capital, Vientiane.
The summit's opening on Monday saw protests against the dam by 250 villagers from Thailand, which will buy most of the electricity generated from Xayaburi and where a lawsuit has been filed to end the power purchase agreement.
The villagers, representing the 24,000 people in Thailand who will be affected by the project, carried banners and posters on a flotilla of 50 long-tailed boats along the Thai side of the Mekong River.
The protests were held across from Don Chan island in the center of Vientiane where the Lao government's guest houses used by leaders attending the Asia-Europe Summit are situated.
"Today the eight Mekong riparian groups of Thailand paid respects to the Mekong River, and issued a statement addressed to the leaders of Asia and Europe attending the Summit in Vientiane," Pianporn Dites, the coordinator of eight Thai riparian provinces told RFA.
"Since energy is part of the agenda during this important meeting, we would like to inform you that the Mekong is the bloodline, the life, the spirit, and the culture of at least over 60 million people," according to a petition they addressed to the leaders.
Two boats carrying armed Lao security forces kept an eye on the demonstration to make sure that the protesters did not cross into Lao territory.
Lao deputy minister Viraphonh said the government was proceeding with the construction after revamping the design of the dam following objections by neighboring countries.
"After two years of preparation, the Laos government will have a ground breaking ceremony on November 7 and will then start working on the dam itself in the Mekong River this week," Viraphonh told Agence France-Presse.
The U.S. $3.5 billion hydroelectric project, the first of 11 proposed dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong River, is being developed by Thai group CH Karnchang with Thai financing.
Environmental groups say the dam will block fish migration and sediment flow on the Lower Mekong, affecting the millions of people in Southeast Asia who rely on the river’s ecosystem for their food and livelihoods.
Viraphonh said Monday that some aspects of the dam's design had been changed to "reassure neighboring countries," but he insisted that objections would not derail plans to finish the project by the end of 2019.
"I am very confident that we will not have any adverse impacts on the Mekong river," Viraphonh told the BBC. "But any development will have changes. We have to balance between the benefits and the costs."
Viraphonh said he believes that concerns about fish migration and sediment flow have been addressed through modifications to the original dam design.
Sediment will be allowed out of the bottom of the dam periodically through a flap and lifts, and ladders will help the fish travel upstream.
"We can sense that Vietnam and Cambodia now understand how we have addressed their concerns. We did address this properly with openness and put all our engineers at their disposal. We are convinced we are developing a very good dam," Viraphonh said.
Cambodia and Vietnam had earlier expressed their opposition to the project.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia's main waterway, had ruled nearly a year ago that "there is a need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impact from mainstream hydropower development projects."
The decision followed an earlier recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
The U.S. State Department, in a statement, criticized the Lao decision.
"While these are sovereign development decisions, we are concerned that construction is proceeding before impact studies have been completed," the department said in a statement late Monday.
"We continue to believe that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) can be a useful platform to provide access to the best science and facilitate consultation with all stakeholders. We also understand that the members of the MRC have not reached consensus on whether the project should proceed."
The U.S. hopes that the Lao government "will uphold its pledge to work with its neighbors in addressing remaining questions regarding Xayaburi," the statement said.
We encourage the MRC countries to continue to work together to realize their shared vision of an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River basin."
A coalition of Thai environmental and community groups, representing thousands of people in Thailand's eight provinces along the Mekong River who will affected by the project, has filed a suit against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Thai Cabinet, and three other state entities.
They are arguing that the Thai government should not have allowed EGAT to sign an agreement with Laos’s Xayaburi Power Co. for purchasing electricity from the 1,260-megawatt dam before assessing the dam's environmental impact.
Reported by RFA's Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.