The Xayaburi dam conundrum

"By approving the controversial Xayaburi Dam, the Lao government will rob the region of a vital lifeline"

Kirk Herbertson
December 13, 2012

“By approving the controversial Xayaburi Dam, the Lao government will rob the region of a vital lifeline”

A comment by Kirk Herbertson
On November 5, as world leaders gathered in Laos for the Asia Europe Summit, the Lao government made a surprising announcement. They had approved the controversial Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River and construction would begin the day after the summit ended. A media frenzy ensued, pushing the rest of the summit into the background.
The Xayaburi project is the first of 11 proposed dams on the Lower Mekong River, which currently runs freely and supports the livelihoods of 60 million people. If the Xayaburi Dam is built, it is expected to affect 200,000 people and threaten 23 to 100 fish species. Many people in the region depend on the Mekong’s fisheries as an important source of food. If all 11 dams are built, the Mekong River Basin would be forever changed. Studies by the Mekong River Commission in 2010 revealed that the dams would convert 55% of the river into reservoir, reduce fisheries catch in the region by between 26% and 42%, flood land, block nutrients from reaching agricultural fields and threaten the food security of millions of people. Scientists believe that there is not enough land or food in the region to replace what would be lost.
People living downstream of the Xayaburi Dam are particularly concerned. An estimated 25,000 Thais would be seriously affected by the dam. Thai community groups have protested and lobbied the Thai government for years, and have also brought a lawsuit. Thailand is closely involved in the project: A Thai company is building the dam, Thai banks – including the state-owned Krung Thai Bank – are financing the project, and Thailand’s electricity authority will purchase 95% of the dam’s electricity. Thai energy experts say that the electricity from the dam is not even needed because cheaper alternatives exist. The Thai government has not responded to concerns raised by its citizens.
The Cambodian and Vietnamese governments are concerned as well. For more than 18 months, both governments have requested that Laos study the project’s transboundary impacts. Laos never met this request, instead hiring consulting companies to design measures that would respond to these concerns. Scientific experts are sceptical that these technologies will work on the Mekong River, especially since they were designed without first collecting basic data about the conditions for fish species and people living along the river.
In 2011-2012, Laos promised to address the concerns of neighbouring countries, but meanwhile continued preliminary construction activities at the dam site. By July, Laos argued that its consulting companies had resolved all concerns. By early November, it appeared that both the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments have begrudgingly withdrawn their opposition to the project as Laos refused to delay construction even to conduct further studies.
People throughout the Mekong region are outraged and concerned. Laos is expected to begin work on several other Mekong dams within the next two to three years. As more dams are built, the impacts will accumulate. After the Xayaburi controversy, diplomatic cooperation under the Mekong River Commission has fallen apart. In the future, deals to build Mekong dams might be made through back-room negotiations rather than through a systematic and open decision-making process. The best hope now is for the Mekong governments or donor partners to acknowledge that Laos is playing roulette with the livelihoods of 60 million people, and to push for urgent reforms.
Kirk Herbertson is Southeast Asia Policy Coordinator for International Rivers, a US-based NGO that protects rivers and the rights of people who depend on them.

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