Laos Uses New Report to Greenwash the Xayaburi Dam

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Biased and incompetent Pöyry report makes mockery of Laos’ international obligations regarding the Xayaburi Dam

Bangkok, Thailand: Ahead of a December regional ministerial meeting to decide whether or not to approve the proposed Xayaburi Dam, the Lao government is using a report by Swiss company Pöyry Energy AG in a desperate bid to gain approval from neighboring countries for the first lower Mekong Mainstream Dam. Despite acknowledging major uncertainties about what harm the project will bring to Lao people and neighboring countries, the Pöyry report recommends that the dam should be built, and falsely claims that neighboring countries’ concerns about the project have been addressed.

“The Pöyry report sidesteps science and relies instead on guesswork, making it an unsuitable basis for decision-making on the Xayaburi Dam,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers. “Pöyry claims that the project complies with MRC guidelines, despite listing over 40 major scientific and technical studies that still need to be completed. It would be irresponsible of Laos and other Mekong countries to support the Xayaburi Dam based on the false claims of this report.”

In May 2011, Laos hired Pöyry Energy AG to undertake a three-month evaluation of the project’s compliance with the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) requirements for Mekong Mainstream Dams and its procedures for regional decision-making. The compliance review was commissioned in response to the concerns raised by the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam at an April MRC meeting over the Xayaburi Dam’s transboundary impacts and the need for further scientific studies and consultation. In early September, the Lao government announced that the Pöyry report would be presented to neighboring governments as part of a plan to begin full construction on the dam before the end of the year. While Lao PDR has yet to publicly disclose the August 9th report, a leaked copy has recently been widely circulated.

In a critical review of the contents of the Pöyry report, International Rivers has identified at least 15 fundamental MRC requirements with which the Xayaburi Dam still does not comply. The Pöyry report avoids mentioning many of these requirements, and instead proposes unproven mitigation measures without having basic data about who, what, when, and how much will be impacted.

Most notably, the report greenwashes the impacts on fisheries. In its own project review, the MRC found that the Xayaburi Dam would block fish migrations, threatening between 23 and 100 species, and affecting fisheries throughout Mekong River Basin. The MRC’s technical guidelines require that any mainstream dam must include a “fish passage” technology that ensures safe passage for at least 95% of key species past the dam. Pöyry makes no mention of the 95% requirement, and instead touts several technologies that have never been applied on the Mekong River or used successfully in any tropical river. Fishery experts from around the world have concluded that no technology exists to effectively mitigate the impacts mainstream dams would have on the world’s largest inland fishery.

The analysis by International Rivers also highlights numerous other serious shortcomings in Pöyry’s analysis of ecosystems, sediment flows, and dam safety. In all three cases, the report draws conclusions while simultaneously admitting to large gaps in the baseline studies.

According to the rules of the regional prior consultation process underway for the Xayaburi Dam, the Lao government must respond to requests for information and must wait for the governments to reach a consensus on whether the project goes forward. Despite the fact that no regional decision has been made and a transboundary impact assessment has not been done as requested by neighboring countries, Pöyry falsely claims that the prior consultation process is already complete, and that the Lao government can make a unilateral decision on whether the Xayaburi Dam goes forward. Furthermore, Pöyry incorrectly asserts that the Lao government is not required to respond to the concerns of other governments and the MRC about the project’s transboundary impacts before the dam’s construction begins.

“Over the past few months Laos has been working hard to push the Xayaburi Dam forward, and illegal construction on access roads and work camps has continued despite a lack of regional agreement,” said Trandem. “It’s not surprising Laos has commissioned Pöyry as their hired gun given their long history of involvement in controversial projects in the Mekong region and their close ties to the Xayaburi Dam’s main builder, Ch. Karnchang. Poyry and Ch. Karnchang are currently working together on another hydropower project in Laos, the Nam Ngum 2 Dam. It comes as no surprise that Pöyry would give its business partner a positive review, despite strong evidence to the contrary.”

As the first Mekong mainstream dam to undergo the MRC’s prior consultation process, the Xayaburi Dam is likely to set a precedent for how future decisions are made on the eleven proposed Mainstream Dams. Over 60 million people live in the Mekong River Basin, and their livelihoods and cultures are intimately connected with the river’s natural cycles. Over 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population in the Lower Mekong Basin, are involved in the Mekong’s fisheries at least part-time or seasonally. The future lives of many depend on governments’ willingness to say no to the Xayaburi Dam.

A decision on the Xayaburi Dam is expected to be made at the upcoming MRC Council meeting, scheduled for December 7 – 9th in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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