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Is Laos building a dam at Xayaburi?

14 May 2012 17:00

Over the past several weeks there have been conflicting reports about the Lao Government's controversial plans to build a dam on the Mekong River's mainstream at Xayaburi, with The Economist's 'Banyan' column of 5 May noting that the Thai construction firm, CH Karnchong, had notified the  Bangkok stock exchange that work on the dam had begun in March.

Similar reports have led to vigorous protests from Cambodia, with Sin Niny, Vice-Chairman of Cambodia's National Mekong Committee, threatening action against the dam in the international court and the country's minister for water-resources protesting to his Lao counterpart. Objections to the dam's construction have also come from Vietnam's National Mekong Committee though not, so far as I can tell, from government ministers. The protests from Cambodia and Vietnam have been matched by those coming from a range of NGOs and environmental groups.

But amid the sound and fury and the claims by CH Karnchong that it is going ahead with the dam, the Lao Government is stating that its critics are wrong and that it has no plans to build the Xayaburi dam, at least for the moment. What CH Karnchong has been doing is only preliminary work around the dam site, Lao spokesmen have said. But what happens in the future may be another matter, since, in the words of Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong:

'We will address and take into account all reasonable concerns in order to make this Xayaburi dam a transparent dam and a role model for other dams in the mainstream of the Mekong River,' Viraphonh told reporters on 3 May at a meeting in Phuket.

That statement is hardly reassuring to those who oppose a dam which, as I have argued in previous posts, not only threatens major damage to fish stocks as well as raising other environmental concerns, but if constructed will stand as an invitation for advocates other proposed dams on the Mekong to press their case.

It is not difficult to understand the Lao Government's concern to find ways of overcoming its economic weaknesses. The thought that the Mekong might enable Laos to become 'the battery of Southeast Asia' is undoubtedly superficially appealing. But to achieve this goal at the cost of degrading the Mekong, both for itself and for its downstream neighbours, seems far to high a price to pay. And putting offside its more powerful neighbours, particularly Vietnam, hardly appears worth the dam's presumed benefits coming from the sale of electricity to Thailand.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.