To the Friends of the Mekong
& VN 2020 Mekong Group
If the Xayaburi Dam’s construction cannot be postponed for at least a
decade, it would be the first domino to fall and open the door for the building
of a host of dams downstream. Their immediate, devastating and long lasting
impacts on the entire ecosystem of the Mekong and Mekong Delta will not be easily
THE HISTORY OF DAMS DOWNSTREAM THE MEKONG
Since the 1940’s, the potentials for hydroelectric production of the Mekong
have attracted the intense attention of American dam builders. In the midst
of the cold war, in 1957, the Mekong River Committee was established under the
auspices of the United Nations. It maintained a permanent office in Bangkok
and consisted of four member nations: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
At that early stage, the Committee had adopted a comprehensive development plan
to improve the lives of all the inhabitants in the Basin including the building
of a series of hydroelectric dams downstream the river. Even though half of
the Mekong’s current meanders through Yunnan Province, China at that time was
a closed society which went undetected on the radar screen of the world.
For over thirty years the Vietnam War spread its tentacles to the three countries
of Indochina. Consequently, the building of large hydroelectric dams downstream
the Mekong current and other development projects had to be put on hold allowing
the Mekong to retain her pristine state for some more time.
On April 5, 1995 the Mekong River Commission which was the reincarnation of
the defunct Mekong River Committee met in Chiang Rai, Thailand. During that
meeting, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister Mr. Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm signed “The Agreement
on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin”.
A fundamental modification was adopted by the Commission: It revoked the veto
power the Mekong River Committee gave to its members. More than a decade ago,
this author had ventured the observation that this Commission is only a “poor
and downgraded version” of the former Mekong River Committee.
The projects to build hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong have come into
existence since the time of the Mekong River Committee. The construction sites
for those dams were once again endorsed by the Canadian and French consultants
and published by the Mekong Secretariat in 1994. However, those projects were
temporarily shelved on account of their costs as well as of their negative impacts
on the ecology.
Beginning in 2006; companies from Malaysia, Thailand, and China were given
the green light to carry out feasibility studies for the “run-of-river” dams
on the Lower Mekong. Below is the listing of the eleven dams in geographical
order from north to south:
- Pak Beng Dam, Laos 1,320 MW; project sponsors: Chinese company Datang
International Power Generation Co. and Laotian government.
- Luang Prabang Dam, Laos 1,410 MW; project sponsors: Vietnamese company
Petrovietnam Power Co. and Laotian government.
- Xayaburi Dam, Laos, 1.260 MW, Xayaburi Province, Laos; project
sponsors: Thai company Ch. Karnchang and Laotian government.
- Pak Lay Dam, Laos, 1,320 MW Xayaburi Province, Laos; project sponsor:
Chinese company Sinohydro Co. June, 2007 to carry out the feasibility studies.
- Xanakham Dam, Laos, 1,000MW; project sponsor: Chinese company Datang
International Power Generation Co
- Pak Cho Dam, Lao-Thai borders, 1,079 MW
- Ban Koum Dam, Lao-Thai borders, 2,230 MW, Ubon Ratchathani Province;
project sponsors: Italian-Thai Development Co., Ltd and Asia Corp Holdings
Ltd. and Laotian government.
- Lat Sua Dam, Laos, 800 MW; project sponsors: Thai companies Charoen
Energy and Water Asia Co. Ltd., and Laotian government.
- Don Sahong Dam, 360 MW, Champasak Provimce, Laos; project sponsor: Malaysian
company Mega First Berhad Co.
- Stung Treng Dam, Cambodia, 980 MW; project sponsor: Russian government.
- Sambor Dam, Cambodia; project sponsor: Chinese company China Southern
Power Grid Co. (CSPG).
Beijing is implementing its plan to build 14 dams on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan
Province. Currently, it also has a hand in the building of four additional ones
in the Lower Mekong. The Chinese company Datang International Power Generation
Co is involved in the construction of the Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam (6,000 MW), on
the Irrawaddy. This is the largest and most controversial of all the dam projects
in Southeast Asia.
Motivated by short-term interest, Vietnam is sponsoring the Luang Prabang
Dam Project (1,410 MW) which is larger than the Xayaburi Dam. 
XAYABURI – THE FIRST DAM
This is the first dam to be built on the Mekong’s main current, 350 km to
the north of Vientiane, 770 km south of Jinhong in the series of dams in the
Yunnan Cascades of China and 150 km south of Luang Prabang. It ranks among the
300 largest dams of the world.
[ Figure I – The dams on the main current of the Mekong
Source: Stimson Center ]
The vital statistics of this dam are as follows: 830 metres wide, 49 m tall, 49
km2 in area, two fish passes, and a navigation lock. Its construction costs
are reported at US$ 3.5 billion with a projected output of 1,260 MW. The expected
date of operation is set for 2019 when 95% of the generated electricity will
be diverted to the Thai city of Loei through a power grid network extending
over a distance of 200 km. The prospects for the Xayaburi dam to operate in
the long run still remains a big question mark because the large volume of alluvia
that will be retained by the dam can quickly fill its reservoir. Below is the
schedule for implementation of the project:
May, 2007: the Laotian government signed the contract with the Thai company
Ch. Karnchang to build the Xayaburi Dam.
November, 2008: the company AF Calenco of Switzerland started the feasibility
study of the dam in collaboration with Thai consultants.
February, 2010: the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was submitted to
the Lao government.
July, 2010: the Lao government officially signed the agreement to sell the
power generated by the Xayaburi Dam to Thailand with the Electricity Generating
Authority of Thailand (EGAT).
April, 2011: the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission (MRC/JC) issued
a press release that the MRC member countries had not reached a common agreement
to start the implementation of the Xayaburi Project. 
June, 2011: the Laotian government unilaterally gave the “green light” to
the company Ch. Karnchang of Thailand to start the project giving rise to a
crisis of confidence among the member countries in the regional attempt to conserve
the Mekong’s environment.
Even though the 1995 Convention of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) revoked
the veto power of the member countries (that was recognized by the defunct Mekong
River Committee), all projects involving the Mekong must go through these three
PNPCA stages: (1) Procedures of Notification, (2) Prior Consultation, (3) Agreement.
It can be said that the Xayaburi is the very first project to undergo the regional
decision-making process of the PNPCA.
Probably, we should pause at this point to review the conventions and time
frame applied to each of the three steps in the PNCPA process as defined in
the 1995 Convention of the Mekong River Commission: (1) Procedures for Notification
(PN) the Mekong River Commission was officially notified by the Laotian government
of the Xayaburi Dam Project since September of 2010. (2) Prior Consultation
(PC) as specified by the article 5.5.1 the time frame allotted to the Prior
Consultation step is six months counting from the day the Notification is received.
However, in case a consensus cannot be reached by the member countries, article
5.5.2 allows for the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission to extend
this six month period.
The Lao government holds to the opinion that there is no certainty for the
trans-boundary impacts of the Xayaburi Dam on the countries downstream to ever
take place. Consequently, it would neither be practical nor necessary to grant
an extension of the Prior Consultation period. Moreover, even if we prolong
the time for additional consultation, it will not possible to satisfy all parties’
We cannot guarantee all the concerns raised by the member countries would
The head of the Lao delegation, Mr. Viraphonh Viravong, stated: “We appreciate
all comments, but we will consider to accommodate all concerns”. He went
on to give the assurance that all building guidelines stipulated by the Mekong
River Commission’s Secretariat would be observed. In addition, his government
would also give top priority to the implementation of international criteria
to minimize the nefarious impacts on all aspects of the project be it waterway
transportation, fish migration, alluvium deposits, water quality, water ecology
or even dam safety at acceptable levels.
However, as far as the other member countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and
Thailand are concerned, they still harbor some reservations about the technical
drawbacks of the project. They do not feel fully reassured about the assessments
of the project’s impacts on the ecology and the lives of the inhabitants of
the Basin. Therefore, they believe it is imperative to conduct further consultations
with the affected population.
According to the Vietnamese delegation, there exists a need to perform a satisfactory
assessment of the trans-boundary and accumulative impacts on the region downstream
the river in particular the Mekong Delta. The six month period is not sufficient
for the nations along the river current to conduct comprehensive studies to
evaluate the accumulative impacts the Xayaburi Dam may cause. Vietnam proposes
a moratorium of at least ten years for all dam projects in the Lower Mekong.
As for the Cambodian delegation, it argues that more time is needed for a
meaningful and effective dialogue between the member countries and affected
population during the Prior Consultation stage. Besides emphasizing the necessity
to complete the studies and evaluations of the far-reaching impacts of the Xayaburi
Dam on the environment, this delegation introduces the quite novel idea of “sharing”
the benefits derived from the dams to set up “social funds” to pay for the conservation
of the environment in the affected nations.
Despite the fact that, along with Laos, Thailand benefits greatly from the
electricity generated by the Xayaburi Dam, this nation recognizes that the dam
plays a major role in the economic development of Laos. Furthermore, the Thai
delegation also acknowledges that the problem of ecological degradation resulting
in flooding and loss of fishing revenues must be reckoned with because it affects
the lives of the inhabitants along the Mekong’s current. Jatuporn Buruspat,
Director General of the Thai Department of Water Resources, expresses his empathy
with the Thai citizens with these words: “Therefore, we would like to see
that public views and concerns are well taken into consideration,” 
The Xayaburi Project is the first of the twelve to be implemented in the Lower
Mekong and also the first outside of China. Preliminary assessments show that
over 200,000 individuals will be directly affected by the dam including the
2,100 villagers who will face forced relocation because their homes are located
directly at the construction site. And there are other millions of Cambodians,
Lao, and Vietnamese who will also suffer as they depend on the water and fish
of the Mekong for their existence.
In the face of uncertainties and those evident losses, the question that comes
to mind is: who are the promoting forces behind the implementation of the Xayaburi
Project? Who else but the Thai capitalists and dam building companies! The financial
players are represented by four big banks: Kasikorn Bank, Bangkok Bank, Krung
Thai Bank and Siam Commercial Bank. The dam company is Thai Construction Company
Ch. Karnchang. According to plan, 95% of the generated power will be diverted
to Thailand and sold to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).
SAVE THE MEKONG AND THE PETITIONS
March, 2011: the most compelling petition was sent by the organization SavetheMekong.org
to the Prime Ministers of Laos and Thailand with the request to cancel not to
postpone the Xayaburi Project. The reasons cited for the request are: the devastation
of the region’s ecology and the impacts caused by the dam will represent permanent
losses to the life sources of the local population as well as to the Mekong,
one of the most precious rivers of this planet, itself.
With over 1,000 species, the fish source of the Mekong ranks second only to
that of the Amazon and the Xayaburi Dam will put an end to the migration of
more than 23 fish species. It also threatens to bring about the extinction of
41 fish species including the Pla Beuks or Mekong Giant Catfish and the Irrawaddy
Dolphins considered the flagship species that is used as an indicator of the
sound state of the Mekong’s eco-system.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director, of the International Rivers
Network shared the same view: “If the Xayaburi Dam is built it would open
the floodgates to other mainstream dams, which would irreversibly alter the
entire river ecosystem.” 
April of 2011: on account of the widespread opposition displayed by the inhabitants
of the Lower Mekong and local as well as international environmental organizations,
the governments in the region had to postpone the decision to build the Xayaburi
Dam. Unfortunately, with the tacit approval of the Lao government, the Thai
dam building company is still quietly proceeding with its works on the project.
The proof is just recently (09/19/2011), a reporter of the Bangkok Post reported
that on a trip to the Xayaburi construction site he saw with his own eyes that
all the heavy equipments including backhoes were still being used in the building
of the almost completed (over 90%) road leading to the dam site.
[ Figure II: The still active construction site of the Xayaburi Dam
Source: International River Network ]
Viraphonh Viravong, Director General of the Laotian Department of Electricity
tries his best to explain away this discrepancy in if not blatant violation
of the official decision: “It goes without saying that the road will only
be used after the Xayaburi project is given the go ahead again. Failing that,
all facilities will revert to the use of the local authorities providing its
officials with easy access to the remote villages.”