WASHINGTON - The US
government is directly cautioning the Laotian
government following Monday's announcement that
the latter will move forward with contentious
construction plans for a massive hydroelectric dam
on the Mekong River.
"The extent and
severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an
ecosystem that provides food security and
livelihoods for millions are still unknown,"
warned the US State Department on Tuesday. "We are
concerned that construction is proceeding before
impact studies have been completed."
US$3.5 billion Xayaburi dam has long been opposed
by environmentalists, downstream communities and
legal scholars, while the World Bank recently
announced sanctions against a
Finnish company that
approved a disputed environmental assessment in
favor of the project.
A major 2011 report
by the pan-regional Mekong River Commission
expressed concern over several areas in need of
further review, and the Laotian government has
stated that it would proceed on the Xayaburi
project only once those concerns were ameliorated.
However, at this week's summit of the
inter-regional Asia-Europe Meeting in the Laotian
capital, Vientiane, the government made a surprise
announcement that it would be moving forward
immediately, with groundbreaking at the dam site
slated for Wednesday.
"We would hope that
senior government officials and heads of state at
the Asia-Europe Meeting would express in the
strongest possible terms their objections to the
Lao government proceeding with the project," Aviva
Imhof, campaigns director with International
Rivers, an environment watchdog, told IPS.
"In addition, we would hope that donors to
Laos's electricity and infrastructure sectors,
such as the Asian Development Bank and the
Japanese government, would reconsider their
ongoing development assistance to a government
that refuses to comply with its international
Tuesday's statement from the
US State Department was unusually direct,
cautioning that the United States' "own experience
has made us acutely aware of the economic, social
and environmental impacts that large
infrastructure can have over the long-term".
While the US does not say that it opposes
the project outright, the State Department
highlights that the Mekong River Commission's
members, based in Vientiane, have yet to reach
consensus on whether the project should continue.
The government urged its Laotian counterpart to
"uphold its pledge to work with its neighbors in
addressing remaining questions regarding
The statement comes a year
after a unanimous resolution was passed by the US
Senate Foreign Relations Committee "calling for
the protection of the Mekong River Basin and for
delaying mainstream dam construction along the
First of a 'cascade'
As currently planned, the Xayaburi project
would consist of a 1,260 megawatt hydroelectric
installation northwest of Vientiane. While there
are already three operational dams (with two more
under construction) on the narrow northern section
of the Mekong that falls within China, the
Xayaburi would be the first such project after the
river enters the plains and becomes the wide,
slow-moving waterway that is central to the lives
of tens of millions of Southeast Asians.
Most likely, the dam's construction would
also ease the way for the dozen additional dams
that the Mekong River Commission says are under
consideration along the river.
regional agreements, none of these can go forward
without consent from the rest of the affected
countries. Yet despite a 2011 decision among those
countries that additional work was necessary
before the Xayaburi project should be allowed to
proceed, the Laotian government has quietly
continued to oversee extensive and expensive
"Laos said it would cooperate
with neighboring countries, but this was never
genuine," Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme
director for International Rivers, said Tuesday.
"The international community should not let the
Lao government get away with such a blatant
violation of international law."
is calling on Western donors as well as the
governments of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia to
take a "firm stand" against the recent decision.
"The Xayaburi Dam is the first of a
cascade of devastating mainstream dams that will
severely undermine the region's development
efforts," she said.
"The food security and
jobs of millions of people in the region are now
on the line. None of Vietnam and Cambodia's
environmental and social concerns have been taken
seriously. Laos has never even collected basic
information about the ways that people depend on
the river, so how can it say that there will be no
Speaking with journalists on
Monday, Viraphonh Viravong, the Laotian deputy
minister of energy and mining, brushed aside such
criticism, saying simply that his government had
"addressed most of the concerns". Construction on
an initial diversionary dam should be finished by
the middle of next year.
Laos today is a
nominally socialist country ruled by one
military-backed party, and it remains one of the
poorest and least developed countries in Asia. Yet
its hydroelectric potential - which the World Bank
estimates at 23,000 megawatts, just a tiny
percentage of which has thus far been developed -
has long been seen as the country's most
significant opportunity to fund its own
For this reason, the
longstanding opposition to the Xayaburi project
has undoubtedly frustrated the country's political
leadership. The dam's construction is being
bankrolled by a Thai company, and current plans
would have almost all of its 1,260 megawatts be
sold directly to Thailand.
Yet despite the
substantial profits projected for the Laotian
government, several studies have highlighted
significant economic and social costs, including
hundreds of millions of dollars in projected lost
agricultural and fishery opportunities all the way
to the river's mouth in Vietnam.
Potentially affected communities have put
together several petitions to the governments in
Vientiane and Bangkok, asking that the Xayaburi
project be halted. The Mekong River Commission has
gone still farther, suggesting in 2010 that all
dam work on the river be subjected to a moratorium
of at least a decade, to allow for greater study
of the potential impact of such work.
2011, the Laotian government hired a Finnish
company, the Poyry Group, to ascertain whether the
Xayaburi proposal complied with the Mekong River
Commission's requirements. To the surprise of many
observers, the company found that the project was
in compliance and advised the government to
continue - though it also suggested dozens of
additional surveys and studies.
the World Bank announced that it was sanctioning
the Poyry Group for impropriety (though not
specifically for its work in Laos). Nonetheless,
critics warn that the Laotian government is now
proceeding based almost solely on the problematic