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Laos Pushes for Massive Dam Despite Criticism

  • Ron Corben

Tourists and gamblers disembark a boat on the Mekong River near the Thai port of Chiang Saen in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet January 14, 2012.

Tourists and gamblers disembark a boat on the Mekong River near the Thai port of Chiang Saen in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet January 14, 2012.

Groundbreaking has been held for a controversial $3.5 billion hydropower dam on the Mekong River. Construction of the Xayaburi Dam appears to be going ahead despite criticism over its impact on the lower Mekong River system, especially from Cambodia and Vietnam.

Speaking at a ceremony Wednesday, Lao Deputy Prime Minister Sarnsawad Lengsawat said Laos considered other countries' views and decided to move ahead with the project. The hydropower dam is set for completion in 2019.

The hydropower dam is expected to be one of up to 10 such projects on the lower portions of the 4,300-kilometer Mekong River that runs through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam’s delta region to the South China Sea.

Environmentalists fear dam's the long-term impact will block migratory routes of fish, potentially affecting the livelihoods of up to 60 million people.

But an engineer with South East Asia Energy Limited, the company building the dam, Somkuan Watakeekul, says it will benefit the region.

He says whether it is drinking water, agriculture, fishing or transport, everyone will benefit from the project. He says the main benefits will be power generation, aid to Laos’ poor communities, and regional development and growth.

The groundbreaking ceremony took place, even though Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong earlier said the project was waiting further study.

An official from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the body that oversees cooperation between Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam on river projects, told VOA the Commission is seeking clarification from the Lao delegation whether the ceremony marked a final decision by Laos to go ahead with the project. In 2011, the Lao government agreed to halt the project until further environmental assessments were made.

The United States this week cautioned Laos about moving ahead with the project, saying the extent and severity of its impact on the ecosystem providing food security and livelihoods in the region remained unknown.

An activist with the environmental group International Rivers, Pianporn Deetes, said the ceremony highlighted concerns over transparency surrounding the project.

“What is happening with this confusion is very well reflected or perfectly reflected, the whole story of the Xayaburi Dam, which is a lack of transparency," said Pianporn. "We never know what happens, we never know any information and only the dam builders, which is a private Thai company, and a few Lao high-ranking officials hold the decision and information.”

Under a joint agreement between Thailand and Laos 95 percent of the electricity generated by the hydropower plant is to be sold to Thailand. Earlier this week, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, said his government supported the go-ahead for the project.

But both Cambodia and Vietnam have expressed reservations. Vietnam is calling for a 10-year delay for all projects on the Mekong.
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