The Lao National Assembly—widely seen as a rubber-stamp parliament—has thrown its support behind a controversial dam under construction on the Mekong River during a debate of the legislative body’s most recent session, drawing criticism over the project’s potential regional impact.
According to state media, members of the National Assembly were invited to “debate” whether to adopt the Xayaburi Dam project, which was given a green light by the Lao government in November despite protests from neighboring riparian countries and environmental groups.
Not a single lawmaker spoke out against the government decision to build the dam during the Thursday and Friday meetings of the National Assembly, which consists of 113 members of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party and two independents.
One speaker commended the government for “convincing” neighboring countries and environmentalists that the dam will “not have any adverse impact on humans or the environment,” state media said.
The National Assembly is convening from Dec. 5-20 and usually votes upon issues raised at the end of each session. Political dissent is almost unheard of in one-party communist Laos.
Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia program director for global conservation group International Rivers, criticized the legislature for supporting the Lao government in proceeding with the dam.
"The Xayaburi Dam is a threat to the development of Laos and other countries in the region,” Trandem said.
Environmental concern about hydropower projects in Southeast Asia have focused on the Xayaburi dam, the first across the main stream of the Lower Mekong.
Laos held a groundbreaking ceremony in November for the U.S. $3.5 billion hydropower megadam, which has faced sharp criticism from downstream Cambodia and Vietnam.
Environmental groups say the dam, the first on the main stream of the Lower Mekong, will block fish migration and sediment flow, affecting the millions of people in Southeast Asia who rely on the river’s ecosystem for their food and livelihoods.
The 1,200 megawatt dam is being financed by companies in Thailand, where 95 percent of the dam’s electricity will be sent, and built by the Bangkok-based Ch. Karnchang in cooperation with Laos’s Xayaburi Power Co.
Critics fear the Xayaburi project will pave the way for nearly a dozen other dams that have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia's main waterway, ruled at a meeting on the Xayaburi dam last year that there is “a need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impact from mainstream hydropower development projects."
The decision followed an earlier recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all main-stream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
Environmental groups have said that adequate studies on dam’s impact have not been conducted and that the effects on downstream communities have not been studied.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.