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Laos is among Asia's poorest nations. But a proposed dam could do more harm than good for many of its inhabitants. Photo: Brendan Brady
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Xayaburi dam divides Laos and stirs tension over Mekong hydropower

Brendan Brady

30th September, 2011

Supporters of a controversial dam in one of Asia's poorest countries say it will bring huge economic benefits. Critics say it could threaten fisheries and rice cultivation, threatening the livelihoods of millions. Brendan Brady reports from Laos

Standing over various maps and charts outlining dam proposals, Viraphonh Viravong says the plans that lie before him promise to herald better times for his country. Viraphonh is the director of Laos’ Department of Electricity and point-person for the Xayaburi dam, which, depending on who you ask, is the first step in a new initiative to lift Laos out of poverty and under-development, or the beginning of a precipitous decline in the health and stability of the Mekong River.

Laos is one of the poorest and least developed countries in East Asia, a status that its communist government says it can shed by drastically expanding the country’s hydropower capacity. Doing so, it says, will provide electricity countrywide and fund better public infrastructure and services with electricity export revenues. Already, hydropower projects draw more than half of total foreign direct investment in Laos, according to the Ministry of Planning and Investment. But in the un-dammed 1880-kilometer main channel of the Mekong running through the country, the government sees too much hydropower potential to leave unharnessed.

Viraphonh says that enlarging the country’s hydropower scheme is a natural evolution. 'If you want to develop hydropower on a small scale to supply to only the domestic market, because of the small scale, it becomes fairly expensive,' he says. 'So after a few years, we realised it’s much cheaper to develop a larger scale and use the export earnings to subsidise the rural electrification. That’s why the project started to get bigger and bigger.'

In the late 1980s, China became the first – and still only – country to install dams along the river’s main channel. China escaped major international opprobrium at the time, but further scientific research and advocacy work by environmental groups in subsequent years have shed more light on the intensified risks of altering the mainstream, which, as the spine connecting the river’s many tributaries, is the most essential part of the wider Mekong river system. 

Living from the Mekong

As such, the $3.5 billion, 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam – the first of Laos’ nine proposed mainstream dams – has stirred tensions with other countries that share the Mekong and heightened concerns about the fate of those who survive off of the river. Downstream from Laos, in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, tens of millions of people depend on the river for fish and irrigation. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake holds one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world, and the copious rice harvest of Vietnam’s fertile delta, where the Mekong meets the sea, makes that country the world’s second-largest rice exporter.

Studies warn that this cascade of mainstream dams will block migration routes necessary for fish to spawn as well as damage huge swathes of Vietnam’s highly-productive delta farmland by blocking the flow of sediment that fertilises it and curtailing the volume of water traveling down the river, thus letting more crop-destroying saline sea water seep upstream.

A detailed report published last year by the International Centre for Environmental Management said the proposed cascade of mainstream dams through Laos would rupture the Mekong’s equilibrium. The Australian organization was commissioned to carry out its 16-month assessment by the Mekong River Commission, a consultative body created in 1995 by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for collective management of the river. The report predicted, among other serious consequences, a 25 per cent loss in the load of sediment that would reach the lower stretches of the river and a 16 per cent to 32 per cent drop in fish stocks. It recommended a 10-year moratorium on any such projects to give time for more detailed research on their impact.

A subsequent report, published in March by the Mekong River Commission itself, found that, from the Xayaburi dam alone, the migrations of anywhere from 23 to 100 species of fish would be curtailed, and the river’s iconic engendered giant catfish, which can span 3 meters and weight more than 270 kilograms, would likely fall extinct. The Commission’s report also estimated that the dam’s power output would drastically diminish within decades from silt accumulation in the dam’s reservoir.

Regional and international environmental and human rights groups have petitioned for an immediate cancellation of the Xayaburi dam. A letter co-submitted in March by 263 NGOs from 51 countries to the Laos government said the project would be 'exceptionally destructive' and 'cause unprecedented damage to the river’s ecology'. Even Vietnam, which as a fellow communist country is typically hesitant to publicly reproach its neighbor, ran a series of articles in its state-run newspapers that warned of reckless damage from Laos’ proposed mainstream dams.

Ignoring the evidence

The Laos government had hoped its Xayaburi project would gain some legitimacy from the environmental impact assessment commissioned by the Thai company contracted to build the dam. The report, however, was slammed by environmental groups, which seized upon its apparent shortcomings: the report looked no farther than several miles downstream in considering the dam’s impact, even though experts believe it will reverberate river-wide; it also ignored readily available scientific research on the Mekong ecosystem, and overlooked entirely the issue of the dam’s effect on sediment movements.

Struggling to mobilise expert opinion behind it, the Laos government has framed efforts to halt its hydropower scheme as a roadblock to the development of the country and its people. The proposed mainstream dams are essential to the country’s rise out of poverty, and will help wean it off dependency on foreign aid, it says. 'If you say, No, you cannot develop the project, you are actually depriving a lot of people. So I feel very sad to see this,' says Viraphonh. 

This is a tact that resonates with communities around the site of the proposed Xayaburi dam, in northern Laos, who have been told that the project will offer them a stable supply of electricity, better roads as well as new schools and hospitals but have not been informed of the project’s risks. As such, fisherman like the 48-year-old Aoun praise the dams – 'they will help my community,' he says – even as, environmentalists warn, they are likely to make worse Aoun’s main daily concern: that 'it’s become harder in recent years to catch fish.'

The Electricity Department head Viraphonh also points out that, in providing hydropower-generated electricity to neighboring countries, Laos is likely reducing the number of fossil fuel-burning power plants that would be constructed in the region. The Laos government has already signed a soft agreement – a Memorandum of Understanding – pledging to their governments to sell 7,000 megawatts to Thailand, 5,000 to Vietnam and 500 to Cambodia. (Indeed, the rising opposition of Laos’ neighbors to the Xayaburi dam is complicated given that it is in part their demand for more electricity that has encouraged Laos to pursue such drastic measures). These 12,500 megawatts, he says, are 'clean, renewable and [produce] no carbon emissions. [So] we reducing the use of fossil fuels, this is how we see it.'

A done deal?

But any insistence by the Laos government that its proposed series of mainstream dams is driven by a desire to assist the region is challenged by its apparent unwillingness to deal openly with its neighbors about the Xayaburi project. In a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in April, representatives of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam demanded more information on the dam’s impact and kicked the issue up to the ministerial level. The next month, in response to rising pressure, the Laos government said it would defer its decision on the dam, pending further research. And as recently as July, the government reiterated that it’s intention was to reassess the Xayaburi dam – for such willingness to reflect on this issue, the Laos government was praised by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then in Bali for a regional talks, for having 'a forward-leaning position.'

But most signs suggest the Laos government has no intention to reconsider the Xayaburi dam. Construction on access roads and a work camp continues near the project site, and leaked documents suggest Laos’ officials have already told the Xayaburi dam’s developer, Thailand’s CH. Karnchang Public Co., to complete the project. In a letter postmarked June 8 and addressed to the construction company, the head of Laos’ energy department says the government had allowed its neighbours to 'evaluate, discuss and comment on the Xayaburi Project,' and 'we hereby confirm that any necessary step in relation to the 1995 Mekong Agreement has been duly taken in a spirit of cooperation…'

This development appears to defy hopes that hydropower development along the Mekong would increasingly be managed at a regional level. 'I think collective management of the Mekong is essential because the Mekong is by definition a trans-boundary river system that many countries are dependent on,' says William Rex, a sustainable hydropower development specialist for the Laos office of World Bank, which has supported dam projects in Laos but not the government’s mainstream plans, favoring instead dams along the country’s many tributaries. 'So I think over time countries will work out how to work together in order to better manage their common interests.' For critics of the Xayaburi dam, that time has yet to arrive.

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