Back in December, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had scored high praise for reaching an agreement that essentially postponed construction of the Xayaburi Dam while further studies could be undertaken into the potential damage to fish stocks and food security in the Lower Mekong Basin.
However, there were doubts over the commitment by Laos simply because of the money at stake – about $3.5 billion. Despite the concerns, Vientiane wants to build a total of 11 dams along the Mekong River and establish itself as the “Battery of Southeast Asia” insisting the dams pose no serious risks.
Authorities in Hanoi and Phnom Penh simply don’t believe this while those in Bangkok – who are financially backing the project and are keen to source electricity from the project – are happy not to notice the neighborly complaints.
Quietly, the December agreement was ignored, and construction around the site continued. This included the building of roads, sewage, embankments and facilities needed for workers who would eventually begin the work on the mega-project.
Now it appears that work on the actual dam may have already begun, contradicting the agreement.
In a filing to the Thai Stock Exchange, construction company CH Karnchang said it had finalized the contract with Xayaburi Power Company to build the 1,206-megawatt dam over the next eight years and that construction was due to begin on March 15.
The United States and Vietnamese had called for a 10-year moratorium in dam construction on the Mekong while Australia – a chief financial supporter of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – backed concerns by Vietnam and Cambodia over the project.
The World Wildlife Fund and International Rivers say the Xayaburi is an environmental disaster in the making that will alter the river’s patterns and impact on fish catches. They want it scrapped, citing damage already caused by Chinese dams.
According to an independent report prepared for the MRC by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM), planned dam construction along the Mekong would be devastating, and it highlighted what many see as the single most important issue for the region – food security. It said if 11 mainstream dams were built, the total loss in fish resources would be 550,000 – 880,000 tons or 26 percent to 42 percent compared to the 2000 baseline – 340,000 tons of that estimate directly due to mainstream dams.
The amount of protein at risk of being lost annually if 11 mainstream dams were built by 2030 represents 110 percent of the current total annual livestock production of Cambodia and Laos.
“The mainstream projects would fundamentally undermine the abundance, productivity and diversity of the Mekong fish resources, affecting the millions of rural people who rely on it for nutrition and livelihoods,” it warned.
Laos has done nothing to reassure its neighbors that it’s serious about looking after the downstream livelihoods of the 60 million people who depend on the Mekong River. Instead, it appears to be paying only lip service to the greater concerns about the dam’s construction.
All the parties left last December’s meeting convinced there would be no more construction until independent studies were complete and no doubt those same parties will now be seeking a clarification from Laos on the status of the project.
Whether Laos, which is ranked near the bottom of the heap at 154 on Transparency International’s corruption index alongside Cambodia and Vietnam, will respond honestly appears unlikely. Whether its neighbors will believe what is has to say appears even less likely.