The first two of five planned large-scale Lao dams on the Mekong river are set to go online before the end of this year, amid controversy over their impact on the environment and people’s livelihoods.
The Xayaburi dam in northern Laos will start operations on October 29, while the Don Sahong dam in southern Laos’ Champassak province will enter its final testing phase by early November, after which it is expected to be fully operational.
The environmental and human rights NGO International Rivers (IR), which plans to hold a panel discussion about the Xayaburi dam on October 22 in Thailand, issued a warning about widespread negative impact from the dams.
“From the outset, the Xayaburi dam was a highly controversial project due to widespread concerns over its expected impacts on the river system, including transboundary impacts in neighboring countries,” IR said in a media advisory ahead of the discussion.
“Major predicted impacts include the destruction of Mekong migratory fisheries and trapping of sediment, preventing it from traveling downstream. The dam’s environmental impacts in turn threaten the food, livelihoods and socio-cultural systems of populations residing within the river basin,” the NGO added.
International Rivers also pointed out that during the consultation process, concerns were raised regarding the “adequacy of the data and studies,” which caused the Vietnamese government to call for the project’s suspension. Meanwhile in Thailand, a lawsuit was filed in 2012 but remains pending.
Since October 11, engineers working at the Don Sahong dam have been testing one of its four turbines.
A Champassak Province energy official told RFA’s Lao Service Monday that the tests were “running smoothly.”
“Now we’re running one turbine. It’s a process we call a soft opening,” the official said, adding, “They will test the turbines one by one and be ready for full operation soon.”
“According to the plan, the dam will test turbines two, three and four between late October and November this year, then we will be up and running by the end of the year.
The official said that about three quarters of the dam’s electricity output will be sold for use in neighboring Cambodia, while the remaining quarter would be used domestically.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region. It is preparing to build scores more dams in the years ahead.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.