While Myanmar appears to be pressing ahead with dam construction for hydropower plants in the face of environmental concerns, Laos is being more cautious. Or at least giving the appearance of being so. Viraphonh Viravong, the country’s deputy minister for energy and mines, tells the state-run Vientiane Times that Laos will not start building its controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong river until it has resolved all concerns about potential impacts.
The measure of Viraphonh’s words, and the environmental impact review being conducted by two sets of international consultants, Poyry from Finland and Companie Nationale du Rhone from France, will be being watched closely by China’s giant state-owned dam builder Sinohydro which is involved in at least eight of 25 dam-building projects in Laos for which Chinese firms are contractors, though Xayaburi is not one of them. Other Chinese companies with a similar interest include China International Water and Electric, China Southern Power Grid, Datang and Gezhouba.
Viraphonh said there are two issues with what at 1,260 MW would be Laos’s largest hydropower plant. They are fish migration and sediment flow, both, according to environmentalists, critical to sustaining the Mekong’s ecosystem. Four dams exist in the narrow gorges of the Upper Mekong in China but until now there have been none on the slower moving lower reaches of the river. China’s damning has made downstream hydropower plants more economically feasible by smoothing out the seasonal flows of the Mekong.
A report for the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission published in October 2010 said that given the far reaching potential effects on the ecosystem, any construction should be delayed for 10 years to give time to plan for more sustainable hydropower development. However, a multi-billion dollar contract to build Xayaburi was signed in April with Ch. Karnchang, one of Thailand’s leading construction companies. Preliminary work has started regardless of deputy ministerial statements.