Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thailand backs Mekong project

Thailand yesterday threw its support behind a controversial hydropower dam on the lower Mekong River which neighbours, environmentalists and Thai communities have opposed.
“The Thai government is not opposed to the project,” said Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichachaikul, speaking at the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in the capital of Laos. 

“The Lao government has already conducted studies that show there would be no impact on the environment and fisheries,” Surapong said. 

Laos will hold a ceremony today in Xayaburi to mark the start of riverbed construction on the $3.8bn project. The date was chosen to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, still a significant date in communist Laos which used to be a member of the Soviet bloc, government sources said. 

In December, members of the Mekong River Commission’s council, consisting of water and environment ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, urged a delay to allow further studies on how to mitigate the environmental impact of the dam, the first proposed for the lower Mekong. 

In response, Laos and its chief partner in the project, Thailand’s Ch Karnchang Public Co Ltd, agreed to spend an additional $100mn to revamp the design of a fish ladder and sediment flow gates. Viraphonh Viravong, deputy minister of Energy and Mines, said the redesign has satisfied all parties, including Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. 

“There is no need for their formal approval,” Viraphonh said of Laos’ neighbours that share the Mekong as a valuable natural resource. So far, only Thailand has openly expressed its support of the project. 

In the past, the Xayaburi project faced strong opposition from neighbouring governments and environmentalist groups who raised questions about its impact on sediment flows downstream and fish migration. 

The lower Mekong Basin has a fisheries sector worth an estimated $2bn per year.
“The food security and jobs of millions of people in the region are now on the line,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers. 

“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 impacts?” Trandem said. Ultimately, the decision to go ahead with the project lies with Laos, as the dam site is in Lao territory. 

“Laos wants to build the Xayaburi dam to increase it’s electricity exports to Thailand,” Surapong said. “That’s what Laos wants, and the dam is inside Laos territory.” 

Laos, a mountainous, land-locked country that ranks among the world’s poorest nations, has abundant hydropower which the government hopes to export to its neighbours as an engine of economic growth. 

The country already has 13 hydroelectric plants in operation with a total capacity for 3,000 megawatts. 

The Xayaburi project, to be operational by 2019, will be one of its largest, with more than 90% of its electricity to be exported to neighbouring Thailand. DPA

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