ALONG the banks of the Mekong in Laos, the forest has been stripped and the mountainside gouged out. Construction of the Xayaburi dam, the first on the lower Mekong, is in full swing.
The dam, which will cost $3.5 billion, is being built by Ch. Karnchang, a Thai construction company, and financed by Thailand’s four largest banks. Over nine-tenths of the electricity from the 1,300-megawatt dam will supply Thailand. But WWF, an environmental NGO, has warned that the dam will contribute to the extinction of the endangered Mekong giant catfish, and put many other fish species at risk.
After Xayaburi, eight more dams in Laos are planned for the Mekong, including one at Don Sahong which would block the only channel for fish migration close to the spectacular Don Khone waterfalls on the border with Cambodia.
The cumulative effects of all the dams on the river’s rich biodiversity and on a vast inland fishery have alarmed scientists, campaigners and neighbouring governments. But the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that co-ordinates management of the river, is powerless to block the unilateral push by Laos, despite strong protests from Cambodia and Vietnam, both commission members and both dependent on the river for fish and for its rich sediment which spreads across farmland during the flood season.
Before construction began in 2012, the Laotian government hired Poyry Energy, a Finnish company based in Zurich, as a consultant on the dam. Poyry was then awarded an eight-year contract to supervise the dam design and construction. Several foreign campaigners accused Poyry of conflicts of interest, which Poyry strongly denies.
Poyry Energy and Xayaburi Power Corporation Limited (XPCL), Ch. Karnchang’s local subsidiary, claim that their redesign of the dam incorporating modern “fish-passage technology” will allow fish to migrate up- and downstream. This experimental technology includes a fish pass, a fish lift and a navigational lock along with “fish-friendly turbines” tested in America.