By Vientiane Times, The Nation
$720m project is not on Mekong main stream: Minister
Developing a dam on the “Hou Sahong channel” of the Mekong River in Champassak province does not breach the 1995 Mekong Agreement, a senior government official has said.
Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong made the comment last Thursday, after the Lao government notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its decision to proceed with development of the 260MW “run-of-river” dam.
Leading environmental groups and some foreign media have said that Laos is in violation of the Mekong agreement, for failing to conduct prior consultation with downstream neighbours before giving the project the go-ahead. But Viraphonh claimed that Laos abides by the 1995 Mekong Agreement for sustainable development of the river. It calls the Don Sahong dam as “an intra-basin water use” – a category in the agreement under which the developer is only required to notify and not consult downstream neighbours in the MRC, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Viraphonh said Laos did not regard the dam as on the “Mekong mainstream”, which would require prior consultation. He said the Hou Sahong was just one of 17 channels in the Siphandon area and water flow through the channel represented only 5 percent of total river flow.
However, Viraphonh said Laos would welcome discussion on any issues of concern. “We are pleased to take reasonable feedback from our downstream neighbours into account,” he said. Any issues could also be raised at MRC ministerial or senior officials’ meetings.
Viraphonh dismissed reports that the Hou Sahong was the only channel for fish migration during the dry season. He said there were several channels that allowed year-round fish migration.
“I am confident that the project will have no significant impact on our downstream neighbours.”
The authorities plan to invite representatives from the media, non-government organisations and interested parties to visit the project site soon.
Viraphonh said the government had hired consultants AECOM Australia-New Zealand and SMEC New Zealand to oversee the project. Construction of the US$723 million dam is expected to start next month and finish by early 2018. Operations are set to begin in May 2018.
All energy generated will be sold to the national power utility Electricite du Laos (EDL), which will hold a 20 percent share of the 25-year concession, to meet the increasing demand for power in the south of Laos.
The Lao minister’s remarks are disputed by environmentalists. Groups such as International Rivers say the Sahong channel is one of the most important migration channels of the Mekong mainstream as it passes through the pristine Siphandon (‘Four Thousand Islands’) area.
Scientists from Vietnam spoke out about the dam project last week, saying they fear it will harm vital rice production in the Mekong Delta as well as fish yields in the river and the South China Sea.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature also voiced concern, saying an urgent meeting of the MRC should be called to discuss the project, which they fear could seriously affect fish yields and “food security” in Cambodia.