The controversial Xayaburi hydro-electric dam project in northern Laos may have already begun, despite countries, including Cambodia, requesting further studies to assess possible negative effects on Lower Mekong communities.
According to a statement released on its website late on Tuesday, Thai development firm Ch.Karnchang said it was due to begin building the dam on March 15 after finalising a construction contract with the Xayaburi Power Company.
In the document, first sent to the Stock Exchange of Thailand, Ch.Karnchang says its subsidiary Karnchang (Lao) will build the 1,260-megawatt dam on the Lower Mekong River over the course of eight years.
Shares in the company rose as much as 2.5 per cent after it announced the 74 billion baht (US $2.4 billion) contract, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
Surasak Glahan, communications officer with the Mekong River Commission secretariat in Vientiane, Laos, said member nations Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam had agreed in principle in December that further studies into the impact of the dam were needed before it could be built.
“However, such a consensus does not mention that the project should be delayed,” he said. “We will, however, seek clarification from Lao PDR on the reported scheduled construction of the project.”
Laos and Thailand were yet to agree to requests to Japan to fund the called-for studies, the Post reported in February.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, said construction should halt until the study was finished.
“As soon as you start construction on the Mekong, you are affecting the biodiversity of the river and species. Any construction is going to undermine the quality of future studies,” she said.
Ms Trandem predicted the issue of funding would be raised at the Japan-Mekong summit this weekend.
“The study would not just look at the impacts of the Xayaburi dam but of all mainstream Mekong dams,” she said, adding that Ch. Karnchang owned a majority of shares in Xayaburi Power Company, meaning it had essentially announced signing a contract “with itself”.
Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said he would be “disappointed” if construction had begun.
“I believe there isn’t any groundwork going on,” he said. “However, we tried to get official information from the Lao government, but we couldn’t get any.
“The four countries have agreed in principle to carry out additional studies and have asked the government of Japan and other partners to assist,” he said.
“Until Laos and neighbouring countries are happy with the result, nothing will happen,” Te Navuth said, echoing similar comments he made after the meeting in December.
Cambodia’s WWF country director Seng Teak, however, said land clearing and road development was already occurring in and around the Xayaburi site.
“WWF would be concerned if the steps agreed to by the MRC and ministers in December are not followed,” he said.
Seng Teak said a recent review of the dam development had identified “uncertainties and weaknesses” with the proposed fish passes.
“Any dam built on the lower Mekong River mainstream risks blocking the migration route and survival of critical fish species, such as the Mekong giant catfish,” he said.
“The recent review of the project also confirmed the Xayaburi project will block part of the sediment flow and that important gaps in knowledge concerning the sediment aspects remain.”
This sediment, he said, was essential for maintaining balance in the Mekong ecosystem – which many Cambodians rely on for their livelihood.
“WWF urges governments to defer a decision on any dam projects on the Mekong mainstream for at least 10 years until proper risk assessment is conducted.”
Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Ek Tha said that the government has urged stakeholders to ensure projects on the Mekong River did not have negative environmental impacts.
“As you know, countries in the Lower Mekong have 60 million people living in the region,” he said. “I urge policymakers to consult with the stakeholders and environment groups to make sure the project will not have negative impacts or look at alternative investments.
“I want them to think of 500 to 1,000 years from now. Put your children and grandchildren ahead of us.”
The Laos government could not be reached for comment.
Ch.Karnchang did not respond to emails from the Post yesterday.