A Risk Too High: The Xayaburi Dam

A Risk Too High: The Xayaburi Dam

By Kraisak Choonhavan
Former Thai Senator

True responsibility for the human and environmental disaster that is likely to occur if the mainstream Xayaburi dam project is allowed to proceed lies not with the Lao Government but with Thailand and our insatiable appetite for energy, at any cost. Considering the risks involved, it is time for Thailand to demonstrate moral leadership and say no.

At risk are the livelihoods of 60 million Lao, Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese villagers who depend on the world’s greatest inland fisheries, which is what the lower Mekong River is today.

At risk is the very viability of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), with its laudatory goal of managing the river basin’s resources for the overall benefit of all stakeholders through consensual agreement, based upon the overriding principle of “no harm.”

At risk is Thailand’s relations with two fellow ASEAN member states, Cambodia and Vietnam, both of whom are fiercely opposed to the Xayaburi project. In fact, in its 15 April, 2011 reply to the MRC’s Prior Consultation process, Vietnam strongly requested “that the decision on the Xayaburi Hydropower Project as well as all other planned hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream be deferred forat least 10 years,” to allow for more comprehensive and detailed studies.

At risk is the financial viability of this US$3.8 billion project and the international reputation of the Thai banks that have agreed to finance it. Unknown as yet, but probably very significant, are the additional costs of maintaining a permanent dredging operation on the 60-80 kilometre-long, in-river reservoir which will be formed upstream from the dam, if it is built, and the amount of lost revenue caused by the probable need for additional, but as yet unplanned, flushing of sediment at the dam site, which will reduce the water available for power generation, quite apart from killing all the fish downstream.

All of these risks, and many others, stem from a single fact: We don’t know enough to accurately assess the full basin-wide impact of building a mainstream dam on the lower Mekong River. That is why the Vietnamese Government’s call for a 10-year moratorium on the development of all mainstream dams on the lower Mekong makes so much sense.

Even the Finnish firm Poyry’s much criticised Compliance Report identified 40 more environmental and cross-border impact studies that should be undertaken, but added, as any obedient consultant would, that all these studies could be carried out while construction was in progress. This “fixing it as you go-along approach” was sensibly rejected by the MRC’s own expert review of the report which noted that “it is strongly recommended to undertake baseline investigations before construction.”

So can the Xayaburi dam project be stopped? Yes, if only we would allow common sense and good neighbourliness to prevail. The great irony of this human and environmental catastrophe in the making is that the Xayaburi dam is completely unnecessary. Laos can have its revenues for national development and Thailand can have its power, not from the Xayaburi project, but by developing some of the already identified, more sustainable hydropower projects in Laos.

Thailand should suspend the Power Purchase Agreement for the Xayaburi dam project and enter into negotiations with Lao PDR, offering increased development assistance and a commitment to jointly accelerate development of selected tributary hydropower projects for the mutual benefit of our two peoples.


Kraisak Choonhavan is Vice President of APHR and former Senator and chair of the Thai Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Kraisak is one of Thailand’s most committed activists on human rights and environmental issues.

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