Controversial Mekong dam could devastate local population

Concerns again raised that the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River will threaten the livelihoods of tens of millions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 9:15am

Environmentalists are again raising concerns about the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River, saying efforts to make the project in Laos more "fish friendly" are not serious, and employ untested technology.

The builders of the dam, which Laos hopes will make it a key regional hydropower producer, have introduced modern fish passage techniques in an attempt to deal with the concerns of scientists that it will lead to the devastation of fisheries and food security.

The controversial project is hotly opposed by Thailand and Cambodia downstream, as well as various NGOs.

Tens of millions of people depend on the 4,300km long Mekong for fishing and agriculture.

The project is being built by Thai firm CH Karnchang, with the guidance of consultants Poyry, a Finnish engineering giant.

During a visit to the dam site, Poyry Energy's Asia director Knut Sierotzki, who is in charge of supervising the dam design said: "The fish-pass facilities are very clearly designed to allow key species to migrate through the dam. That is why we have not one but three systems for fish migration. We have a fish ladder, and fish lift (for the fish that either cannot or will not swim up the ladder) and a navigation lock."

Fisheries experts say that a problem with all large dams is that they trap nutrient-rich sediment and block migratory fish species. In many of the most dammed rivers of the world, fish species have died out, and food security has declined.

But Laos Vice Minister of Energy Viraponh Viravong said the Xayaburi dam will be different: "The Xayburi dam is one of three or four dams that have rather insignificant impacts on the Mekong. We are very confident that the impacts if any, will not be significant. We are very confident of that."

However the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) does not share that optimistic assessment. According to its own research, the dam presents a risk to the endangered Giant Catfish and 227 other fish species. The famed catfish can reach more than 3 metres in length and weigh more than 300kg.

Dr Jian Hua-Meng, WWF's hydropower consultant, said: "This dam is so benign they claim, that it is virtually not there. This is basically nonsense."

Poyry's Pierotzki said that in addition to fish passage technology, which has been developed and tested in countries such as Norway and Switzerland, the dam would hopefully employ "fish-friendly" turbines, developed for use on dams in the US.

The dam would also undertake "sediment flushing".

Fisheries specialist Dr Eric Baran of the World Fish Centre, based in Cambodia, said that "there has never been a successful fish pass built for a dam the size of Xayaburi, anywhere in the tropics."

Jian, an engineer, said: "Building a fish pass based on experiences of northern Europe and Switzerland and transferring them to the Mekong is just not serious business."

With dam construction already in full swing, Swiss consultants AF Consult and Terraplant have been sub-contracted to carry out a study of fish species using nets and underwater cameras along the Xayaburi stretch of the Mekong.

Dam construction is about 10 per cent completed, but it will be another year before the fish study allows engineers to come up with a final design for the fish pass.

The developer wants all the stakeholders to follow him blindly with a leap of faith into an uncertain future with a very risky game of roulette on the Mekong with the livelihoods of 60 million people at stake
Worldwide Fund for Nature

Critics say the studies are being rushed. A 2011 study by Northwest Fisheries Science Centre in Seattle concluded it would take decades of research "to ensure that specialised fish passage facilities actually meet the needs of these diverse fisheries of the Mekong".

During the recent site visit, a Poyry's senior project manager told a guest that "whether the fish get across (the dam), you'll only see when it is built".

"This is not a responsible corporate player," Jian said. "This technology is unproven and experimental. It is a very high risk.

"The developer wants all the stakeholders to follow him blindly with a leap of faith into an uncertain future with a very risky game of roulette on the Mekong with the livelihoods of 60 million people at stake."