Updated 12:30 p.m. EST on 2012-05-17
The Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River may have to be redesigned to avoid any adverse impact on the environment, a senior Lao official says, citing a French study amid opposition to the project by green groups and neighboring nations.
Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said that Laos received the findings from a French company hired to conduct an environmental assessment of the dam. Previous studies have said the dam could have a major impact on the regional environment and threaten food security.
“This study … confirms that if the Lao government wants to let the dam be redesigned, there will be no impact on the environment,” Viravong said recently.
The redesign, he said, would allow more river sediment to flow through the dam, a key concern for downstream countries whose agriculture depends on the river.
The Mekong River originates in China and flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The silt deposits provide rich soil nutrients for rice and other crops.
Environmental groups have opposed the dam, saying it would 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.
Viravong said Laos had hired the French consultants Compagnie Nationale du Rhone after the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that manages development on the waterway, called for further assessments.
“First we hired the Swiss company Poyry to do the impact study, but people were not satisfied with that, and now we have hired a French company,” he said.
In December, Laos and the three other MRC member countries—Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—agreed the dam should be postponed pending the results of a new environmental impact assessment, which was to be conducted by Japan.
The decision followed a report by Poyry Energy AG, which was hired by the Lao government in May 2011 to review the dam’s compliance with MRC requirements.
In its final report submitted in August, the Swiss company found the project to be "principally in compliance" with the MRC's requirements, but international environmental groups said the study was flawed.
International Rivers, an NGO that works on water systems worldwide, said it found “numerous inconsistencies and scientific shortcomings” in the report and that the Lao government was using it as “false justification” that it had responded to MRC concerns about the project.
In its report, Poyry also recommended that over 40 further studies be conducted before the dam was built.
An earlier study by an expert group had recommended a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
‘Wanting to know’
Environmentalists are seeking more information about the new French study.
"The Lao government will have to release this company’s report and [information about] how the studies were carried out,” Montree Chantawong, an expert on hydropower from the Bangkok NGO Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, told RFA.
“We want to know if it is true as the Lao minister has said,” he said.
He said a comprehensive assessment of the dam was required in order for all relevant parties to assess whether or not the dam is economically worthwhile.
Preliminary work on the dam site has already begun by Thai construction company Ch. Karnchang.
The company announced in April it had signed a contract for the construction of the dam beginning March, despite calls from the MRC to wait for a further study.
Over 3,000 residents near the dam site have been relocated to make way for the project, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper.
Opponents of the project are concerned that if the dam moves forward without regional consensus, it will pave the way for more hydropower projects on the river and render the MRC consultation process irrelevant.
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 the 11 Lower Mekong projects are in Laos, which has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.
Most of Laos’s 70 planned dams are on Mekong tributaries, over which MRC agreements have no sway.
The Xayaburi dam has also drawn protests from riparian communities in Thailand, where 95 percent of the electricity from Xayaburi is to be sent.
Last week, a group of Vietnamese scientists added their voices to the project’s opposition, urging Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnam's National Mekong Committee to formally lodge a protest with the Lao government.
“It is unacceptable to resume construction on the Xayaburi dam,” the scientists at the Vietnam Rivers Network wrote in a joint letter addressed to Dung, Vietnam’s Thanh Hien News reported.
The team of experts insisted that the dam will directly threaten the livelihoods of around 20 million residents in the Mekong Delta, as well as Vietnam's national and regional food security, the newspaper said.
In late April, another Vietnamese scientists’ group, the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Association, voiced its concern over the dam at a conference in April, saying the project will threaten regional food security and affect the lives of millions downstream, particularly in the Mekong delta, the heart of the country’s rice production.
Cambodia has already lodged its official protest with Laos over the project, warning Lao MRC representatives in a letter in April not to allow the dam to move ahead.
The letter followed earlier threats from Cambodia to take Laos to international court over the dam.
Reported by Nontarat Phaicharoen for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.