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Construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos (Photo: EPA/STR)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Opening the floodgates?

Richard Connor
November 6, 2012

As Laos pushes on with plans to become a hydroelectric powerhouse for the region, wheels have been set back in motion to build a giant dam on the Mekong River. However, there are fears it could set a dangerous precedent.


The Lao government has announced it will restart work on the Xayaburi dam after construction was put on hold some 18 months ago.

A "ground-breaking ceremony" to mark the start of work is planned by the leadership of the Communist state on Wednesday, the 95th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

One of the world's most under-developed nations, Laos hopes the 1,260 megawatt dam could help it become the battery of Southeast Asia.

However, the dam - the first of 11 planned on the lower part of the waterway - has emerged as a symbol of the potential risks posed to the region by hydroelectric power projects.

The timing of the announcement on Monday raised eyebrows, as it coincided with the start of an Asia-Europe summit in the Lao capital, Vientiane.

Present were the prime ministers of Vietnam and Cambodia, both of which have raised concerns about the impact of the scheme on fisheries and farming.

A roulette wheel (Photo: Daniel Maurer/dapd)
The government in Vientiane is accused of gambling with dangerously high stakesImage: dapd

'Hazardous game of roulette'

Those fears were shared by Ame Trandem from the campaign group International Rivers, who claimed Lao's leaders were performing a huge experiment with the waterway and its surrounding communities.

"The Lao government is playing roulette with the Mekong River and its people," Trandem, the group's Southeast Asia Program Director, told DW.

"All evidence points to the grave environmental and social impacts and unequal benefits that this project poses for the people of the Mekong region. It's simply irresponsible and extremely risky to proceed with the Xayaburi Dam, as the Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia."

The lower Mekong basin's inland fisheries are the largest in the world, with fish the main source of animal protein for people living in the river catchment area. The flow of nutrient-rich sediment also plays a vital role in ensuring that agricultural land is fertile.

The fear is that fish species will dwindle as nutrients are trapped behind dam walls and that fish will not be able to reach mating grounds. Sediment that would normally carry minerals downstream to the agricultural basin would also be held back.

A Lao agricultural worker (Photo: Global Witness)
The river delivers vital minerals to farmland through the sediment it carries alongImage: Global Witness

'No more complaints'

The 1995 Mekong Agreement stipulates that the four countries along the lower Mekong consult each other about the cross-border impact of proposed river developments. Laos claims that after delaying the project in April last year for consultation, it has done just that.

"They have no more serious complaints on the redesign of the dam," Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong said, concerning the country's neighbors. "The Lao government is confident that with all these changes there will be no serious environmental impact, and that's why we've decided to go ahead."

"Ladders" to allow fish to ascend the dams and continue up river have been proposed and sanctioned - along with a plan for regular release of sediment.

However, only Thailand - which is planning to buy some 90 percent of the power generated by the dam - has openly expressed its support of the project. Laos has said it does not need the formal approval of Cambodia and Vietnam.

Washington entered the debate on Monday as the State Department raised its own concerns about the wisdom of proceeding.

"The extent and severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an ecosystem that provides food security and livelihoods for millions are still unknown," the department said in a statement.

"While these are sovereign development decisions, we are concerned that construction is proceeding before impact studies have been completed."

Fishing boats (Photo: dpa)
The Mekong is the world's largest inland fisheryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Example for the future

With access roads and surrounding infrastructure already built, this week's announcement from Vientiane heralds essentially the beginning of work on the river bed itself. International Rivers claim the authorities have been waiting for favorable weather conditions rather than the completion of risk studies.

For Trandem, the perceived lack of true cross-border consensus reached over the Xayaburi plant could set a precedent for all future dam projects in the area.

"Despite all of the negotiations that have been going on, Laos has just decided to go ahead with the project, essentially breaking an international agreement," said Trandem.

"We're very concerned about what this means for future dam projects. Dams planned further downstream will bring with them even more implications."

With Laos already having 13 hydroelectric plants in operation, the Xayaburi project would be one of the biggest. It is expected to become operational in 2019.

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