Following allegations Laos has ignored its Mekong River Commission (MRC) neighbours and proceeded with construction of the Xayaburi Dam project, Laos’ Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong spoke to the Bangkok Post Sunday to explain the other side of the story. The following is an edited version of the interview.
After the MRC meeting in December in Siem Reap, Cambodia, what has Laos done with the Xayaburi hydropower project?
The Lao government has hired Companie Nationale du Rhone to review Poyry’s [an independent consultant hired by Vientiane] studies to ensure that the dam will not have impacts downstream.
Regarding construction work, we have been preparing the site and conducting further surveys and studies to collect more information.
Laos has not given a permit for any construction until we are satisfied with the studies. We have not started any construction that is permanent and we have never given a permit for such construction.
We have been preparing the site and we have been doing so continuously.
What about the Mekong River. Is there any construction on the river?
We have not started working on any construction on the Mekong River that is permanent. What you may see on the river is part of the subsurface geological investigation, which needs to be carried out to facilitate the flushing structure, which would be built tens and tens of metres in the ground.
The media reports that suggest the Lao government has been lying are not true. We have been complying with the [MRC] agreement.
Preparatory work does not involve permanent structures and is just to support the project development. Roads, apartment buildings for workers and such are preparatory and are commonly built ahead of the project to help save time.
Laos has never violated the agreement and has fully complied with the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
There have been media reports that we have halted the project. That’s the biggest misunderstanding. We have not carried out the work and then halted, as we never started any construction.
The developers have signed the contract of power purchase with Egat [the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand] already, and they have signed the concessionary agreement with the Lao government. But to be in effect [the concessionary agreement], the developers must follow conditions we have set, such as clearance of land use rights.
The only condition left is how to satisfy the Mekong countries that we have addressed all of the concerns they have raised.
That is why we have hired Poyry and CNR to conduct reviews and studies and then publish the findings in the public domain.
And we have organised an international meeting to give an opportunity to others to raise further concerns until they have none; then the Lao government will make a decision.
What will be the basis of the government’s decision?
We will listen to the engineers and experts to see if they say it is OK to go ahead. As they are the experts, the Lao government will listen to them.
What impact will the project have on regional development?
The Xayaburi Dam project has direct benefits for the region as a whole. As we know that hydropower is clean and renewable, the Thai government would be able to have clean and renewable energy, therefore reducing energy derived from dirty coal-fired or gas-based power.
If we could encourage such use, we would be able to see the reduction of greenhouse gases, which would benefit the region as a whole.
At present, there are regional concerns that involve impacts on fisheries, so we are now considering measures proposed by the engineers to help reduce the impacts _ for instance, the use of fish ladders. That would cost over US$100 million (3.17 billion baht).
Actually, the sustainability of fisheries does not depend solely on dam development. There are other causes in the region that can impact that sector, such as water pollution.
What impact will the project have on regional cooperation and river governance under the MRC?
I have seen no problem derived from the project because Laos has acted correctly and followed the agreement. Laos is a small country, so it would not dare to breach the agreement.
If the four countries have the right understanding in the agreement, there should not be any problem. If the 1995 Mekong Agreement is not effective enough to deal with issues, we should consider amending it, not forcing others to act outside the agreement.
Is Laos still bound by the council’s conclusion?
Partially. But it should not be a factor to base a judgement on whether the Xayaburi Dam should be built or not.