Despite fierce opposition from neighbours and international critics, a Laos government official confirmed publicly and unequivocally today that the country is moving forward with construction of the Xayaburi dam, the first mainstream dam on the lower Mekong River.

“The Laos government has decided to go ahead with the project,” said Viraphonh Vivavong, vice minister of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, speaking at a panel in Vientiane. Construction on the coffer – the temporary structure that allows water to be cleared from a dam’s worksite – will begin in early 2013, he added.

Critics of the US$3.5 billion, 1,260 megawatt dam in northern Laos say that its potentially disastrous effects on fish, sediment and water flows could affect people from northern Thailand to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The four countries of the lower Mekong region – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam– are home to 60 million people, up to 80% of whom depend upon the river for their livelihood.

China has already built four dams on the mainstream of the upper Mekong. “Xayaburi is a milestone,” said Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, to Viraphonh. “If we start building dams on the lower Mekong, all the blame we have for China will move here.”

The dam is one of 11 proposed along the mainstem of the lower Mekong. It would block migration patterns for as many as 100 fish species, according to the NGO International Rivers, in a region that depends heavily on fish protein for nutrition. The dam could also potentially disrupt sediment flows downstream of the river, affecting farmers for thousands of kilometres.

Building all eleven dams would slash the river’s fish supply by 16%, a loss of US$476 million each year, according to a study published in August by the WWF. If all of the 88 dams slotted for the Mekong river basin are completed, by 2030 fish stocks could drop by 40%.

The Xayaburi dam, said co-author Stuart Orr, “could be so devastatingly impactful that not enough time and effort has gone into looking at how to minimize impacts and look at it in a more holistic way than just how they are going to sell off energy.”

Critics in the region and around the world have lobbied hard against the proposal since rumours of the dam first emerged in 2007. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Lao government to reconsider the project on her visit to the country this summer.

After two years of discussions, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam agreed in December to postpone construction to conduct more studies on the dam’s effects.

However, visitors to the site in July noted that the Thai developer Ch. Karnchang was building roads and other infrastructure that looked like staging for construction. On Tuesday, the state-run Vientiane Times reported that the government has also started construction on a bridge linking Vientiane and Xayaburi provinces.

Today, the vice minister confirmed that Laos was done waiting, and scoffed at the suggestion that more studies would influence the country’s position.

“We’ve spent hundreds of millions on data. We don’t need more data. If you want to spend another million, go ahead,” he told the panel.

The vice minister made his comments at a panel discussion at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, an annual meeting of NGOs. Hydropower was a critical component of Laos’s economic development, he said – 95% of the dam’s electricity will be exported to Thailand – and while the country would take design suggestions into consideration, the question of the dam itself was not up for negotiation.

“This is a fairly direct development to the local people,” he said. “You cannot live in Europe and say, ‘Ah, you cannot do that.’”

It is not only environmentalists abroad who have objected to the proposal. Laos is proceeding with the project over the strong objections of its neighbours in the region is a blow to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the intergovernmental body that deals with issues surrounding the river. The commission has no executive authority and can’t override a member’s decision.

The Xayaburi dam was the first project put forth under a special decision-making process for resolving regional issues. Laos’s decision to ignore its neighbours’ pleas for more time and move ahead with the potentially ruinous project is a slap to its partners in the regional body.

“Many, many organisations complain to me that MRC is a paper tiger. I disagree. We’ve never been a tiger. We’re just the paper,” said Pakawan Chufamanee, director of the Mekong Management Bureau in Thailand’s Department of Water Resources.

Corinne Purtill is an associate editor (US) of chinadialogue

Editor Beth Walker contributed to this report.

Image by International Rivers

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