Decision time for giant Laos dam

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  After checking his fishnet, a fisherman climbs up the cliff at the Somphamit falls on a stretch of the Mekong River in Laos. On December 8 Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand will announce whether they have given the go-ahead to the construction of the controversial US$3.8 billion Xayaburi dam or again put it on the back burner.Photo by JEAN LONCLE.

On December 8, the four countries that share the lower reaches of the Mekong River will announce whether they have given the go-ahead to the construction of the controversial US$3.8 billion Xayaburi dam or again put it on the back burner.

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee On Tuesday (November 29) unanimously approved a resolution by Senator Jim Webb calling for the protection of the Mekong River Basin and for delaying mainstream dam construction along the river. The resolution calls for the US government to allocate more funding to help identify sustainable alternatives to mainstream hydropower dams and to analyze the impacts of proposed development along the river.

"The Committee's adoption of this resolution sends a timely signal of US support for the Mekong River Commission's efforts to preserve the ecological and economic stability of Southeast Asia," Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who heads a Senate subcommittee on East Asia, said in a statement. "The United States and the global community have a strategic interest in preserving the health and well-being of the more than 60 million people who depend on the Mekong River.

WHY IS LAOS SO KEEN?

The 1,285-megawatt, 810-meter (2,600-ft) Xayaburi dam in northern Laos has been touted as a major step for green energy by its proponents, while those in the opposing camp have dismissed such claims as disingenuous.

With a population of around six million people and a gross domestic product of $5.6 billion, land-locked Laos has promoted the Xayaburi project as a potential source of income and investment that will help spur its economy.

Last April the Asian Development Bank issued a report saying hydropower and mining activities would underpin the country's economic growth in the next two years. The same report stated that Laos was shooting for 8 percent annual growth and looking to shed its LDC (least developed country) label by 2020. 

In April, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia agreed at a meeting that the decision on the Thai-financed dam would be elevated for consideration at the ministerial level. Vietnam had even called for a 10-year moratorium on all 11 dam projects proposed on the 4,900-km-long Mekong River, which also runs through Myanmar from its source in the Tibetan plateau.

Only a few days later, Laos insisted that the decision-making stage, or the prior consultation process, of the Xayaburi project was already over, a move strongly protested by the other three Mekong nations.

Those opposed to the project fear the 1,285-MW dam would unleash massive ecological changes on a river that sustains around 60 million people. It would also kick off construction of the other 10 dams proposed on the Mekong's lower mainstream, which, if approved, will provide only 6-8 percent of Southeast Asia's power needs by 2025.

Laos has tried to reassure its neighbors that it will not build the dam until all the ecological and environmental concerns are adequately addressed.

"Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia share the common position that any construction activity will take place only if positive signals are given by the experts," Lao Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisolit told Bloomberg on November 19 in Bali, Indonesia, where 18 Asia-Pacific leaders met for a summit.

"Although the project is situated within our territory, the Mekong River is an international river," Thongloun was quoted by the newswire as saying. "Therefore, we must respect the opinions and views of those who are using the water resources."

After the April deferral, Laos hired Finland's Pöyry Group to review the project, and has since presented the findings to its neighbors.

Despite acknowledging major uncertainties about what harm the project will cause people in Laos and neighboring countries, the Pöyry report recommends that the dam should be built.

The report says that the main concerns of the riparian countries about the impacts of the dam "can be remedied with the additional investigations recommended to be carried out during the construction phase."

It concludes that the Xayaburi project has "principally been designed in accordance with"

the applicable guidelines set up by the Mekong River Commission, the organization established to coordinate dam projects on the river.

But a prominent environmental group has emphatically rejected the Pöyry report, which Laos has been using to talk its neighbors into approving the dam.

"The"¦ report avoids mentioning many of these requirements, and instead proposes unproven mitigation measures without having basic data about who, what, when, and how much will be impacted," International Rivers, a California, US-based NGO and perhaps the most vocal critic of the project, said in a press release on November 8

WHAT CAN NEIGHBORS DO?

Mekong basin countries are bound by the 1995 Mekong Agreement to hold inter-governmental consultations before building dams, but none has veto powers and Laos will have the final say, although considerable diplomatic pressure can be exerted on it.

Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat, said under the Mekong Agreement, if one country goes ahead with a project on the Mekong mainstream and causes an unforeseen trans-boundary impact, there are two legal aspects.

"The country [or countries] facing the impact would notify the MRC of the impact, and the country causing that impact would need to appropriately react and address the situation.

"The second option involves conflict resolution procedures. These procedures begin at the country level and proceed to the [MRC's] Joint Committee, and if required may lead to international arbitration." 

Most notably, the report glosses over the impacts on fisheries and sediment flows that provide nutrients for downstream crops, International Rivers said.

A technical review released by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in March on the Xayaburi dam has been the most comprehensive analysis of the project's impacts to date.

Experts hired by the commission estimated that Xayaburi would curtail the migrations of anywhere from 23 to 100 species of fish and spell doom for the extinction of the giant catfish, the river's most distinctive species.

The MRC's study pointed out that the Xayaburi's ability to churn out power will be severely compromised within a few decades because its reservoir will fill up with silt.

"It is expected that under proposed operating conditions, the reservoir would effectively lose about 60 percent of its capacity due to sedimentation after 30 years," it said.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand is planning to sign a deal with the dam's developer, Ch. Karnchang Pcl, Thailand's third-biggest construction company by market value, to buy 95 percent of the electricity to be produced by the dam.

Given so many loopholes, experts are doubtful the Pöyry report will actually contribute anything to the discussion.

"The [report] would appear to be little more than a shallow, desk-based, tick box exercise that has failed to gather any new or primary information that would help [Lao] regulatory bodies"¦ make an informed decision," David Blake, a Laos expert at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said. 

"As such it can be regarded as a rubber-stamping exercise to fulfill minimum requirements that more than likely do not meet the legal standards of Laos itself, let alone the standards required for an important trans-boundary river with a dependent population in the tens of millions," Blake, who obtained a leaked copy of the report, added.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, drew a grim picture for riparian countries at the upcoming meeting.

"Despite Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand's requests for more studies and consultation in April, none of these requests have been met," she said.

"Nothing has actually changed in the region since April."

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