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Environmental Activists Angered by Early Work on Lao Dam

A fisherman works near the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Paksey, northern Laos (File)
A fisherman works near the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Paksey, northern Laos (File)

Regional environmentalists and scientists are angered by reports a Thai construction company has begun preliminary work at the site of a hydropower dam in northern Laos, before official go head has been given by Mekong River countries. The Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission is due to make an official announcement this week on the project amid strong resistance from environmentalists.

The proposed 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi Dam in Northern Laos is facing new controversy after Thai media reports preliminary dam construction has begun well before official clearance by the Mekong River Commission.

The Commission, with representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, is to make its final report as early as Tuesday on whether the development of the $3.5 billion project should proceed.

In 2007, Thailand and Laos agreed 95 percent of the electricity generated by the hydropower dam would be sold to Thailand, with Thai construction companies and finance supporting the project.

The Xayaburi dam is the first on the Mekong River system to require government approval. But weekend Thai media reports showed photos of preliminary construction work at the site in northern Laos that had begun weeks ago.

The media reports angered environmentalists and scientists who want more scientific studies on the impact of Mekong River system dams. Mekong campaigner Ame Trandem, of the environmental group International Rivers, says the assessment process is calling for construction delays on the main river system.

"The impacts of the dam are much greater than the benefits, and this is the problem. The strategic environment assessment that came out by the MRC [Mekong River Commission] just three weeks after the Xayaburi process started, this has given the main recommendation that all decisions on mainstream dams should be deferred for a period of 10 years because the impacts will be so great," said Trandem.

Environmentalists say the Xayaburi dam will impact the Mekong River’s ecology and water flow. Vietnamese government officials have also expressed concerns over the dams’ impact on the rice growing delta region. Initially more than 2,000 people are to be forcibly resettled with a further 200,000 people indirectly affected.

The media reports also said poor Lao farmers are being offered as little as $15 in compensation by the Thai construction company. International Rivers' Painporn Deetes says the compensation points to the developers’ failure to fully appreciate the dam’s impact on regional communities.

"How to compensate these people and how to compensate those farmers that are living on the [Mekong] Delta that their land would be intruded by the sea water, how to incorporate all these people together and have their voice heard? For the decision making process is not only a few powerful people that make decision in their air-conditioned rooms," stated Deetes.

U.S. Senator, Jim Webb, expressed concern over reports the Lao government is ready to move ahead with the Xayaburi dam. A Webb statement says the decision marked a ‘dangerously harmful precedent’ on the region’s environment.

Up to 10 dams are proposed for construction on the lower Mekong River, with environmentalists warning as many as 40 million people would be affected if the dams get the go-ahead as well as impacting the region’s biodiversity.