A public relations campaign by Lao authorities to deflect intensifying debate on the construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River appears to have backfired amid contradictory statements by officials.
Lao Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith announced at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting on July 13 that the dam project which triggered environmental concerns has been put off pending further studies, earning praise from many delegates.
He also said that for the first time since the project was hatched five years ago, Lao authorities would bring representatives of all "stakeholders" to the dam's building site, drawing even more accolades for the rare act of transparency.
The twin moves were believed aimed at allaying concerns by donor nations that Laos was moving rapidly ahead with land clearing and construction work for the U.S $3.8 billion project even though a regional decision has not been made on whether the dam should be built.
The perceived openness by Laos was seen as crucial because the Xayaburi project will set the benchmarks 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.
But as experts were digesting the Lao minister's statement, the official media in Vientiane gave a different story.
It said the government will continue to allow Thai company Ch. Karnchang, entrusted with the task of building the dam, to continue with "scheduled" activities at the construction site, including the resettlement of affected villagers.
When groups which were invited to the construction site reached the scene, they confirmed that construction work was indeed continuing.
"While Laos' decision to host a visit to the dam site is positive, it's clear construction is advancing," said Jian Hua Meng, an expert with global environmental group WWF—among the delegation of ambassadors, donors, and NGOs which attended a meeting with the Lao government last week to listen to presentations about the project and inspect the dam site.
Lao Vice-Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong and the Thai builder Ch. Karnchang told the visitors that the dam is going ahead as per their initial plan, with any alterations to be carried out as construction progresses, WWF said in a statement.
Viravong also said that a "coffer dam" aimed at diverting the Mekong River's flow away from the in-river construction site will be built by the end of this year, according to Meng, WWF’s sustainable hydropower specialist.
It would be the first direct intervention in the riverbed and marks a milestone in the ongoing dam construction, he said.
"Laos expects its neighbors to take a dangerous leap of faith and trust that the risks associated with this project will somehow be resolved while construction moves ahead," Meng said.
"This dubious approach not only preempts the conclusions of the on-going studies, but clearly contravenes international best practice," he said.
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 that the dam project should not proceed until further assessment was conducted.
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 United States has committed funds to support MRC studies on sustainable management and development of the Mekong River to explore the potential impact of dams on the waterway, which originates in China and flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
"In the past, I have urged partner countries to pause on any considerations to build new dams until everyone could fully assess their impact," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a regional meeting in Southeast Asia this month after pushing Laos to conduct more studies on the Xayaburi dam that is opposed by neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam.
"Some studies have explored the benefits of generating electricity, but questions—serious questions—remain about the effects on fisheries, agriculture, livelihoods, environment, and health," she said.
While international experts were left scratching their heads over the conflicting statements by Lao officials, Lao Vice-Minister Viravong caused further confusion as he tried to contain the damage.
"We have not started working on any construction on the Mekong River that is permanent," he told Thailand's Bangkok Post newspaper in a bid "to explain the other side of the story."
"The media reports that suggest the Lao government has been lying are not true. We have been complying with the [MRC] agreement," he said.
He went on to add that preparatory work on the dam project does not involve permanent structures and "is just to support the project development."
"Roads, apartment buildings for workers ... are preparatory [work] and are commonly built ahead of the project to help save time," he said.
But when the Bangkok Post sent a team to the construction site earlier this month to investigate the matter, it captured photographs of what appeared to be "major" construction work extending from the hillsides to the banks of the river.
A one meter (3.2 feet) high gravel dyke has been constructed more than halfway across most of the river width of 800 meters (2,624 feet), leaving only a small channel for boats to pass through, the newspaper said.
"On one side of the river bank next to the extensive 'preliminary construction,' a large concrete base is in place and sections of the hillside have been flattened. There are paved roads and buildings in some work camps," it said.
Boatmen told the newspaper that the dyke had made it difficult to navigate the river as the smaller opening had stronger currents.
Based on its own visit to the dam site last month, environmental group International Rivers said that construction and resettlement activities have been "significant" and contradict claims by Lao officials and the dam developer that only preliminary work has been done on the project.
Recent activities, it said, 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.
"Even before the river is fully blocked ... construction will disturb the riverbed enough to significantly affect fish populations and the flow of sediments downstream," Kirk Herbertson, Southeast Asia Policy Coordinator for International Rivers, said in a report.
"It will be impossible to collect baseline data and conduct accurate impact studies while construction is underway," he said.
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.
Thailand not spared
While Laos, the dam host, is on the front line of attacks from green groups opposed to the project, Thailand is also under fire as the investor, project developer, and purchaser of 95 percent of the power to be generated by the hydroelectric dam.
A coalition of Thai environmental and community groups plans to sue the Thai government over the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos.
“It is now time to look to Thailand for leadership,” said Herbertson. “Construction on the project is likely to continue on schedule until Thailand cancels its power purchase agreement, withdraws its investments, and orders Ch. Karnchang to adhere to the Mekong River Commission’s negotiations.”