Dam Effects Understated

More than 20,000 Laotians living by the Mekong River will be directly affected by the Xayaburi dam, a researcher says.
2012-09-10
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xayaburi-map-305
A map showing Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos.
RFA

The Xayaburi dam under construction on the Mekong River in northern Laos will directly affect 10 times as many people as the Lao government has stated, an environmental researcher in Thailand has said.

The Lao government has said 2,000 people will be relocated to make room for the $3.5 billion hydropower project that is on track to be the first dam across the main stream of the Lower Mekong, Southeast Asia’s key artery.

But more than 20,000 residents will be directly affected by the dam as it floods surrounding areas and causes water levels along the Mekong to rise, Montree Chantawong, an expert on hydropower from the Thai nongovernmental organization Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), said Sunday at a workshop in Bangkok on the Xayaburi dam.

The dam, Montree said, will flood not only downstream areas but also upstream areas along 150 kilometers (90 miles) of the river up to Luang Prabang, situated north of the Laotian capital Vientiane at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.

“The Lao government has talked about only the 2,000 people in 10 villages that will be relocated, but there are more than 20,000 people in about 30 villages from the dam site all the way to Luang Prabang who will also be affected.”

Studies show that once the dam is built, the water level downstream from the dam will be at least three meters (10 feet) higher than normal, he said.

Regional environmental impact

The dam will also cause transboundary impacts in neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam and will cause soil erosion of the Mekong riverbed, Montree said.

Laos has come under fire from its neighbors for failing to conduct a thorough enough study of the dam’s environmental impact, both within the country and for its neighbors.

Environmental groups say the dam is likely to damage the Mekong ecosystem, fisheries, and regional food security.

Laos says it has suspended the dam in response to international calls to wait for further impact assessments, but it has allowed the developer Ch. Karnchang, a Thai company, to begin initial construction on the project.

Last month, the company’s chief executive officer told reporters in Bangkok that Ch. Karnchang had never received instructions from the Lao government to suspend the project.

Environmental groups in Thailand, where Laos plans to send 95 percent of 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.

In August, a group of 30 villagers representing communities in Thailand’s eight provinces along the Mekong River filed a suit against Thai government agencies over the dam, saying the entities should not have agreed to buy the dam’s electricity before assessing the environmental impact of the project.

Some 300 people have already been relocated to make way for the dam, according to the U.S.-based environmental watchdog International Rivers.

In January, Ch. Karnchang moved the 333 Houay Say villagers to a newly constructed village 17 kilometers (11 miles) outside the town of Xayaburi, the group said.

According to International Rivers’ estimates, some 202,000 people in all will suffer impacts to their livelihoods, income, and food security due to the loss of their agricultural land and riverbank gardens, an end to gold panning in the river, and increased difficulty in accessing products from the forest.

Reported by Nontarat Phaicharoen for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.