First Dam Officially Proposed to Mekong River Commission

The government of Laos has officially notified the Mekong River Commission of its plans to build a 126-megawatt hydropower dam across the Mekong River in northern Laos, the MRC said yesterday.

The notification marked the first time that a Mekong dam has been put up for discussion at the MRC and its members, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, will now have to agree on whether or not to go ahead with the proposed dam.

“The [MRC] received the official notification for a proposed mainstream Mekong hydropower development project in Xayaboury province from the government of Lao PDR. The Xayaboury hydropower project would be the first such project on the Mekong mainstream downstream of China,” the MRC said in a statement.

Jeremy Bird, chief executive of the MRC Secretariat, said that under the 1995 Mekong Agreement MRC countries needed to jointly review any mainstream Mekong River dam and were now required to reach consensus over the Xayaboury dam.

“We expect it to take about six months to undertake the detailed analysis…and for the countries to come to a conclusion,” Mr Bird said in the release.

The Xayaboury dam is located 150 km downstream of Luang Prabang in northern Laos and is expected the generate electricity mainly for export to Thailand. Its reservoir of 49 square km will inundate 10 villages and displace 4,300 people, according to an MRC impact study, which estimated that around 200,000 people in Laos will be indirectly affected through loss of fisheries.

The dam is one of eleven hydropower projects proposed in the Lower Mekong, while China has already constructed four dams on the upper Mekong and is in the process of completing another four.

Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Committee, said yesterday he had been informed of the notification to the MRC by the Lao government but said the Cambodian government had no opinion yet on the Xayaboury Dam.

“Let’s put the notification on the table and see what are the major problems,” he said.

According to Mr Dun, the dam’s potential impact in Cambodia would be “not so big because it’s far away…nearly 2,000 km upwards. The migration of fish [from Cambodia] to up there is very few.”

However, the government remained concerned over the dam. “We are concerned about the impact on fisheries and that it will block sedimentation important for the Cambodian floodplains and nutrition for fish,” he said.

Environmentalists and civil society groups across the region oppose the construction of more Mekong dams as the dams put the livelihoods of tens of millions of people at risk, potentially wiping out fisheries by blocking key migration routes and changing river flows and sedimentation.

The MRC said in an impact study released in May that the two Mekong dams planned in Cambodia alone would destroy the livelihoods of a million Cambodian fishermen, while local NGOs estimated at least 2 million livelihoods would be lost.

Tep Bunharith, director of conservation group Culture and Environment Preservation Association, said he had attended several meetings in which civil society groups discussed the planned dams with MRC and government officials, adding that many groups opposed the Xayaboury dam.

“It seemed the Xayaboury dam will block fish migration and sedimentation and affect endangered fish,” he said.

Mr Bunharith said he was surprised the MRC was discussing the dam before local people across the region had been consulted.


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