Laos wants to proceed with the construction of a controversial dam on the Mekong River after reevaluating the project in response to environmental and other concerns, according to a government official.
A major access road to the project site is also quickly nearing completion in a sign that any suspension of the project is slim.
The Bangkok Post reported Sunday that the 30 kilometer (18.5 mile), four-lane access road to the Xayaburi dam is 90 percent completed, citing senior engineers who asked to remain anonymous.
The road work would seem to contradict earlier statements by the Lao government, which said it would delay construction after the Mekong River Commission (MRC) decided in April to defer any decision on the U.S. $3.8 billion project to the end of 2011.
The MRC, which consists of Laos and neighbors Thailand, Vietnam,and Cambodia, concluded at the time that the potential for damage to rice farming and fishing communities along the river warranted the suspension of work on the dam.
But Director-General of the Laos Electricity Department Viraphonh Viravong said that claims that the construction had begun were “not totally correct,” the Bangkok Post reported.
Viraphonh said that while the site was being surveyed, authorities in Xayaburi and Luang Prabang provinces, where the dam is being built, had asked that the road be completed so that the infrastructure could be used, whether the dam was ultimately approved or not.
“Of course, if the project starts, the road will be used,” he said. “But if not, all of the benefits will go to the local authorities, as they will have access roads for a lot of villages.”
Viraphonh said that the Lao government “will not start the project until we reach a happy conclusion with other riparian countries.”
Following the decision to suspend work on the Xayaburi in April, Lao officials commissioned a report by Swiss firm Poyry Energy AG which recommended work on the dam could go ahead.
The Xayaburi is being jointly constructed by the Lao government and Thai construction firm CH. Karnchang.
Ninety-five percent of the expected 1,280 megawatt capacity of the dam will be sold to Thailand through the country’s Electricity Generating Authority.
Viraphonh told the Bangkok Post that the Lao government has already submitted the Poyry report to the Vietnamese government and will meet separately with Thai and Cambodian officials to discuss the findings.
“We believe the dam can be constructed,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be rejected any more. At the MRC council meeting, we will also report these findings.”
Earlier this month, Viraphonh told the Bloomberg news group that Laos “would like to start [construction] toward the end of this year when the dry season comes.”
The MRC said it was aware that the Lao government had commissioned a report, but had still not received a final version, adding that any submission could accompany the overall consultation process but would have to be reviewed by the commission.
One of the senior engineers who spoke with the Bangkok Post said construction is already under way for worker accommodations and that there are already 1,000 workers on the site.
‘Battery of Asia’
Critics of the dam say it would destroy the river’s ecology and disrupt the livelihood of riparian communities that rely on it for their livelihood.
They also fear that proceeding with the Xayaburi dam would give a green light to construction on as many as 10 other hydropower projects planned for the lower Mekong.
Several groups have issued warnings that any dam built in the area may be at risk of collapse because the site is prone to earthquakes.
With plans to build a total of 70 hydropower projects, Laos hopes to become “the battery” of Asia.
The Lao government has said that the dam would not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream.
But the landlocked country, which hopes to kick-start its economy by harnessing the river, is facing increasing criticism over how the projects will affect the environment and its downstream neighbors.
The state media in Vietnam, Laos’ communist ally, has been particularly critical of the Xayaburi dam. Farmers in the country say the dam will decrease outflow in the Mekong delta, causing salt water from the sea to creep further into the region’s farmland and destroy crops.
Vietnam has urged a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams on the river.
The MRC, an intergovernmental panel, released a report in March which found that the dam would curtail the migration of anywhere from 23 to 100 species of fish. It described as “ineffective” a device proposed by CH. Karnchang to allow fish to bypass the structure.
The report also said that “under proposed operating conditions, the reservoir would effectively lose about 60 percent of its capacity due to sedimentation after 30 years,” putting the long-term ability of the dam to produce electricity in question.
Activists, scientists, and officials outside of Laos say the dam would cause irreversible environmental damage, force the resettlement of 2,100 people, and impact millions of others.
Mekong campaigner Pianporn Deetes of the U.S.-based International Rivers told the Bangkok Post that regulations under the MRC fail to function effectively when implemented because the group’s recommendations are not legally binding.
“It may be time to think about strengthening the public participation process, which includes inviting the voices of those who would really be affected by a development project,” she said.
Under an earlier agreement, Laos can proceed with the project without the approval of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, but the decision to hold off on construction may stem from the nation’s hope of gaining the support of its neighbors, all of whom are major trading partners.
China has dammed much of the upper Mekong, but few structures obstruct the rest of the 3,000-mile (4,900-kilometer) river as it continues its course through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.