By; James Robert Haft
Concerns remain about downstream livelihoods and cultures
After eight years of construction and at a cost of 120-billion baht (approximately $3.8 billion), the controversial Xayaburi Dam built across the lower Mekong River in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) became operational on 29 October 2019.
As the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) chose not to fund the project, six Thai commercial banks provided the necessary loans: Siam Commercial Bank, Krungthai Bank, Kasikorn Bank, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand, Bangkok Bank and TISCO.
Built by Thailand’s CH. Karnchang PLC, the dam has a capacity of 1,285 megawats. It will produce up to 7,600 gigawatt hours (GHh) per year of which 95 percent, or 7,300 GWh, will be purchased by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and transmitted to Tha Li district in Loei province.
The dam is 820 metres long and 32.6 metres high. Its catchment covers an area of 272,000 sq kilometres, and it will have a surface reservoir encompassing 49 sq kilometres with a gross storage capacity of 1.3km3.
As the Mekong River is considered the world’s largest freshwater eco system and fishery, there are major concerns about how the dam will affect the tens of millions living in downstream riparian communities, not just because of fish breeding but also because of the flow of sediment, so important for replenishing nutrients in the soil.
CK Power PLC, a member of CH. Karnchang Group and operator of this massive run-of-the river hydropower generating facility, have said they have focused on solving these environmental issues by including in the construction state-of-the-art fish ladder technology, lifts and 48 fish shelters, or pools. As water fills a fish lock, 5-tonne batches are lifted from the lower levels to an upper channel that gives fish access to the upstream river. There are also navigation locks for ships to manoeuvre between the different levels, which will also allow for sediment flow and fish migration.
However, many do not believe these facilities will work. They see the failure of the Pak Mun Dam in Ubon Ratchathani. For this reason, the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces originally filed a petition in 2012 with the Administrative Court. This was followed by several appeals to stop EGAT from purchasing electricity from the Xayaburi Dam. The last petition was submitted on 26 July 2019; the ruling is still pending.
This was at the same time that Thailand’s Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) sent an official letter requesting the Laos government postpone or suspend test trials on the dam as the Mekong River was critically low. They felt this was caused by unusually low rainfall and the reduction of discharge by China’s Jinghong Dam further north from 9 to 18 July 2019, and the ONWR was afraid the trials between 15 to 29 July 2019 would exasperate the situation, which they felt they did.
The Xayaburi Dam is just one of 11 run-of-the-river dams that have been planned along the Mekong River, nine in Lao and two in Cambodia. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic has its sight on becoming the “Battery of Asia”. They believe that by supplying energy to their neighbours, they can earn the capital necessary to support their economic development.
CK Power PLC has the concession to operate the dam until 2050 after which the Lao PDR will take over.