Laos held a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday for the Xayaburi megadam on the Mekong River despite objection to the project from environmental groups and neighboring countries.
Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad presided over a religious ceremony marking the official launch of work on the $3.5 billion hydropower dam, which has faced sharp criticism from downstream Cambodia and Vietnam.
“We had the opportunity to listen to the views and opinions of different countries along the river. We have come to an agreement and chose today to be the first day to begin the project," Somsavat Lengsavad said, according to Reuters news agency.
Senior officials from the Lao government and diplomats from Vietnam and Cambodia also attended the ceremony, according to The New York Times.
Environmental groups say the dam, the first on the main stream of the Lower Mekong, will block fish migration and sediment flow, affecting the millions of people in Southeast Asia who rely on the river’s ecosystem for their food and livelihoods.
International conservation group the World Wildlife Fund said Wednesday that “serious concerns” about “grave risks” posed by the dam remained as Laos broke ground on the project.
“If the region’s governments fail now to reaffirm their concerns on Xayaburi, they risk resting the future of the Mekong on flawed analysis and gaps in critical data that could have dire consequences for the millions of people living in the Mekong River basin,” the group’s freshwater program director Li Lifeng said in a statement.
The public launch marks the start of a stage of construction that will directly affect the Mekong riverbed, after nearly two years of preliminary construction around the dam site.
Since initial work on roads and workers’ facilities at the site began in late 2010, officials had given contradictory statements about whether or not Laos was awaiting further study and international consensus before allowing the dam project to proceed.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong denied reports that there would be a groundbreaking ceremony, telling the Wall Street Journal that the event was simply a visit for journalists and scientists and that plans for the dam are still subject to “further study.”
But a banner at Wednesday’s event described it as a groundbreaking ceremony, according to Reuters.
The event followed a two-day meeting in Vientiane of leaders from 49 countries for an Asia-Europe summit beginning Monday.
Some 250 Thai villagers representing riparian communities that will be affected by the dam protested at the summit, carrying banners and posters on a flotilla of 50 boats across from the meeting venue on the Thai side of the Mekong River where it flows past Vientiane.
The 1,200 megawatt dam is being financed by companies in Thailand, where 95 percent of the dam’s electricity will be sent, and built by the Bangkok-based Ch. Karnchang in cooperation with Laos’s Xayaburi Power Co.
Critics fear the Xayaburi project will pave the way for nearly a dozen other dams that have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia's main waterway, ruled at a meeting on the Xayaburi dam last year 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.
When announcing plans for the groundbreaking ceremony this week, Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said the dam’s design had been revised and improved “to reassure neighboring countries.”
"I am very confident that we will not have any adverse impacts on the Mekong River," he told the BBC, adding that concerns had been addressed through revisions providing for fish ladders and sediment gates.
"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," he said.
But environmental groups have said that adequate studies on dam’s impact have not been conducted and the effects on downstream communities have not been studied.
“Laos has never even collected basic information about the ways that people depend on the river, so how can it say that there will be no impacts?” Arne Trandem, the Southeast Asia program director for global conservation group International Rivers said in a statement Monday.
“None of Vietnam and Cambodia’s environmental and social concerns have been taken seriously,” she said.
“Laos said it would cooperate with neighboring countries, but this was never genuine.”
The dam has also faced sharp criticism from the U.S. State Department, which issued a statement this week criticizing the decision to move forward with the project and urging Laos to " uphold its pledge to work with its neighbors” in addressing remaining questions on the dam.
"While these are sovereign development decisions, we are concerned that construction is proceeding before impact studies have been completed," it said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.