MRC nations invited to visit dam

[Note: The following article, which originally appeared in the Bangkok Post, was written by the author during the SEAPA 2012 Fellowship.]

The Lao government has invited representatives of fellow Lower Mekong countries to inspect the controversial Xayaburi Dam site for the first time.

Invites to the two-day programme, scheduled for tomorrow and Tuesday, were sent with less than a week’s notice to officials from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, representatives of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and development partners.

Attending parties will be briefed on the status of the project and visit the dam site.

Participants will be briefed about the a positive review of the Xayaburi project by Switzerland-based consultants Poyry and France-based Companie Nationale du Rhone, which was commissioned by the Lao government after MRC countries raised concerns about it proceeding without their approval.

“There are many people who do not understand the real situation and we need to give them the correct information,” the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

The Xayaburi Dam inspection tour follows a visit by Hillary Clinton to Laos last week, the first trip to the country by a US secretary of state in 57 years.

During her visit, Mrs Clinton reportedly pushed the Lao government to conduct more studies on the US$3.6 billion (113.54 billion baht) Xayaburi Dam and its impacts before proceeding with the project.

Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong assured Mrs Clinton that the project would not proceed without approval from neighbouring countries.

Last month, the US-based International Rivers organisation travelled to the site and visited affected residents and found work was already under way at the site.

This work included dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed at the dam site, the construction of a large concrete retaining wall and an increase in the local labour force.

One village, Houay Souy, was resettled from the dam’s planned spillway to a location near Xayaburi town in January.

International Rivers claimed that Thailand’s Ch Karnchang, the Xayaburi partner, had defied the diplomatic process to decide the future of the Mekong River.

”The company has violated the trust of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam with apparent impunity,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Programme Director for International Rivers.

Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong told the Vientiane Times newspaper on Friday that his government had kept its promise not to undertake construction in the mainstream river.

However, he said ”geological sub-surface investigations” were being carried out in the Mekong, including drilling rocks for surveying.

Mr Viraphonh said it was part of the hydropower plant design process.

The vice minister also said once the government is convinced that it has addressed all the concerns of neighbouring countries and development partners, the project will revert to its normal construction schedule.

The Xayaburi Dam is the most advanced of 12 hydropower projects planned on the Lower Mekong. It was first developed by Ch Karnchang, Thailand’s third largest construction company, to sell 95% of electricity generated to Thai state enterprise Egat (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) at a price of about two baht per kilowatt per hour.

Critics say it will damage the Mekong ecosystem and the livelihoods of downriver communities.

The Lao government started consultations with other Mekong countries in late 2010, but it was later revealed that preliminary construction work was under way despite other MRC members not giving their approval.