An international NGO has said construction on Laos’s controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam is moving ahead despite promises to suspend the project following uproar from neighboring countries and environmental groups.
Construction and resettlement activities at the dam site have been “significant” and contradict claims by Lao officials and the dam developer that only preliminary work has been done on the project, the environmental group International Rivers said in a statement Wednesday after investigating of the dam.
The project, as the first dam on the mainstream Lower Mekong, is also the first to undergo a controversial review process through the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a four-nation body that manages development along the river and has not yet given a go-ahead for the project.
A member of an NGO in Thailand associated with International Rivers who visited the dam site told RFA that construction is continuing at all hours of the day.
"When looking at the dam site, you can see construction is going on all the time,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.
He said Ch. Karnchang, the Thai developer tasked with construction of the 1260-megawatt hydropower project, has already begun to build a dam wall where a village used to be.
“People in Houay Souy village have already been resettled to a new area, and in the area where their village used to be the construction company is building the retaining wall. The land in front of the dam is cleared,” he said.
More than 330 villagers from 65 families in Houay Souy village have been resettled, he said.
Roads have been built alongside the Mekong River and land in the mountains has been flattened, he said.
“Vehicles are running back and forth all the time,” he added.
A member of another NGO traveling to Xayaburi on other business confirmed his account and International Rivers’ report.
“Ch. Karnchang company has begun the construction of the infrastructure at the dam site; for example, the construction of roads and workers’ shelters is 40 percent completed,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.
Officials contacted by RFA at the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department refused to comment on the status of the dam.
In May, Sithong Chitgnothin, director of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department, told RFA construction on the dam had been halted. Other Lao officials have said only preliminary construction, such as on roads around the site, is proceeding pending further studies by the MRC.
Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said that the dam may have to be redesigned to avoid adverse impact on the environment by allowing more river sediment to flow through the dam, a key concern for downstream countries whose agriculture depends on the river.
Controversy over the dam has flared since April, when Ch. Karnchang said it had signed a contract for the project’s construction, even though the MRC had recommended the project be postponed pending further study.
Environmental groups in Thailand, where Laos plans to send 95 percent of the Xayaburi’s electricity, have staged a series of protests against the company and a group of Thai banks lending the firm funds to proceed with construction.
The Chiang Rai-based Lower Mekong People’s Network, which represents communities from seven different provinces in Thailand along the Mekong River, plans to file a lawsuit against the company in July.
“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,” International Rivers said in its report on the investigation of the Xayaburi area.
The group said Ch. Karnchang had broken its promises to only begin initial construction.
“So far, Ch Karnchang claims that they are only going forward with ‘preliminary construction’ on the project, but the definition of ‘preliminary’ keeps expanding,” said Kirk Herbertson, Mekong campaigner for International Rivers. “Ripping up the riverbed and resettling entire villages cannot be considered a preliminary activity.”
“By proceeding with resettlement and construction on the Xayaburi Dam, Ch. Karnchang 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,” Ame Trandem, the group's Southeast Asia program director said.
The group also found that resettled families had not received the new agricultural land and year’s worth of free electricity and water promised them by the developer.
Last month, the Lower Mekong People’s Network submitted a letter to the MRC requesting an update on the dam, but said it had received no response.
The group says the dam is likely to damage the Mekong ecosystem, fisheries, and food security of the people on both sides of the river.
The Mekong River originates in China and flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Its silt deposits provide rich soil nutrients for rice and other crops.
In December, Laos and the three other MRC member countries—Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—agreed work on the dam should be postponed pending the results of a new environmental impact assessment, which was to be conducted by Japan.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.