Laos aims to build Mekong dam this year, testing neighbours

Laos wants to start construction this year on the $3.8 billion (Bt115 billion) Thai-financed Xayaburi hydropower plant on the Mekong River after changing the design of the dam to placate neighbouring countries opposed to the project.

Laos completed a review of the dam recently to ease concerns in three neighbouring countries that it would harm rice production and fish catches downstream. Environmental groups say the project will endanger the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people on the fragile Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, and cause grave damage to rice growers in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, which is also threatened by rising sea levels. Villagers in riverside communities in Thailand also oppose the dam, which could be the first of up to a dozen proposed on the lower Mekong. Early this year, Hanoi recommended a 10-year delay on all hydropower projects on the river, which flows from China through Burma, Thailand and Cambodia to the delta in southern Vietnam… The Mekong and its tributaries provide food, water and transportation to about 60 million people in the four countries. In a July meeting with counterparts from Mekong nations in Bali, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a pause in construction of dams on the river “until we are all able to do a better assessment of the likely consequences”. Vietnamese officials in January recommended delaying the project and moving it to a Mekong tributary because it would affect “the safety of water sources and food security for Vietnam as well as for the whole world”, according to notes of the meetings. Thailand and Cambodia also favoured more studies on the dam. A technical review in March by the Mekong River Commission found that the dam may lead to the extinction of species like the Mekong giant catfish, and “gaps in knowledge” meant the full extent of the downstream impact on fisheries was hard to estimate. The dam “will not materially affect” the quantity and timing of river flows to Cambodia and Vietnam, it believed.