Work has resumed on a controversial $3.5bil dam across the Mekong River in Laos, its Thai developer said, contradicting Laotian assurances it had been suspended following protests over its environmental impact.
Laos agreed in December to suspend the Xayaburi dam project and said on July 13 work had stopped after neighbours Cambodia and Vietnam repeatedly expressed concern that the 1,285MW dam would harm migratory fish and the livelihood of downstream villages.
“We are still working on the project. We haven’t received a formal letter from the Lao government that we should suspend or put the project on hold,” Plew Trivisvavet, chief executive officer at Thailand’s Ch Karnchang Pcl, told reporters.
The government of Laos made no immediate comment.
The dam would be the first along the main stream of the Mekong in South-East Asia. It is at the heart of land-locked Laos’ ambitions to become the hydropower battery of South-East Asia, with Thailand the main buyer of the energy.
Environmentalists fear it could clear the way for more dams across the mighty Mekong, one of Asia’s biggest rivers.
On December 8, the Mekong River Commission, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, said member governments agreed to approach the Japanese government and other international development partners to further study the dam’s implications before giving Laos the go-ahead to continue construction.
But Ch Karnchang, the dam’s main contractor, expected to begin construction of a reservoir at the site later this year, said Plew.
“We have entered the area for some relocation work and to prepare for the construction of the reservoir,” he said.
Communist Laos has hailed Xayaburi as a model for clean, green energy that will stimulate its tiny $6bil economy and improve the lives of its 5.9 million people, over a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, many without electricity.
It is the first of 11 dams planned in the lower Mekong that are projected to generate 8 percent of energy-hungry South-East Asia’s power by 2025.
Environmentalists say Xayaburi could block the flow of nutrient-rich sediment to southern Vietnam’s rice-growing Mekong Delta. State-controlled media in Vietnam have been uncharacteristically critical of the dam.
According to a study by the Mekong River Commission, an inter-government agency, the proposed 11 dams would turn 55 percent of the river into reservoirs, resulting in estimated agricultural losses of more than $500mil a year and cutting the average protein intake of Thai and Lao people by 30 percent.