Considering the scale of the project and the controversy it has caused, the ground-breaking ceremony for the Xayaburi dam was a relatively quiet affair.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Five months after Mekong countries agreed to reconsider the Xayaburi project and Laos said it would suspend the work, photos were taken showing construction around the site.
Bhuddhist monks led almsgiving and chanting in the Lao valley, where the dam will soon form a concrete barrier across the mainstream Mekong River.
The monks were begging forgiveness from mother nature.
Construction of the dam has drawn strong local and international opposition, including from the US, which is concerned that the results of environmental impact studies are still not clear.
A Thai environmental group has also launched legal action, attempting to block Ch Karnchang, the Thai firm who will develop and co-own the dam with the Lao government, from constructing it.
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"Normally, before we start blasting the riverbed, the Lao tradition is to ask the spirits in the area to forgive us for disturbing the river," Viraphonh Viravong, Laos' Vice-Minister of Resources and Mining, told Spectrum in Vientiane after returning from the ceremony earlier this month.
"There was a Buddhist ceremony in the morning. Villagers from the area also joined. At half past ten, we started the official ground-breaking ceremony."
Representatives from the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), which has secured a 28-year deal to purchase 90% of power generated by the dam, also joined the meeting, as did representatives from the banks financing the project, Mr Viravong said.
According to a ministry document, Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai Bank, Siam Commercial Bank, Krung Thai Bank, Tisco Bank and the Export-Import Bank of Thailand all have a stake in financing the dam.
The power purchasing contract was signed by the Surayuth Chulanont government.
"There were a lot of people from Egat and the Thai banks who joined the ceremony," Mr Viravong said. "The Cambodian and Vietnamese ambassadors [to Laos] were also present."
Cambodia and Vietnam have both strongly protested the construction of the dam, citing serious concerns over its impact on food security in the downstream countries.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-government body established in 1995, has called on the Lao government to conduct a more complete study on the dam's environmental impacts.
According to the Lao ministry, the Xayaburi dam will be 40 metres high and 800 metres across, with no reservoirs. The construction timeline has been set in four phases. The first is pre-construction, including design and conducting of concession and power purchasing agreements. That phase, begun in 2007, is already complete.
The second phase deals with the construction of all civil components of the project, as well as the installation and commissioning of all electro-mechanical equipment, slated for completion in 2019.
The third phase covers the 29 years of the Egat concession agreement until Dec 3, 2047.
The fourth phase covers the period from 2048 onwards.
"There is a clear record showing that we agreed to conduct a comprehensive study into the project, which may take 10 years," Mr Viravong said.
"It has never related to the Xayaburi dam alone. I always said it was not fair to single out hydropower, because hydropower dams are not the only thing which will affect the Mekong river delta.
"There are six areas such as irrigation, industrial use of water and mining that can create impacts, not just hydropower."
He said Xayaburi Power Co has consulted with neighbouring countries, and the conceptual design for the dam, which was changed based on MRC recommendations, has been published on its website since April.
"We took the feedback from neighbouring countries and incorporated it into the design," Mr Viravong said. "So I'm surprised that people don't seem to understand the process. We have been very open with the design change and other reports such as corporate social responsibility. Anyone can see it. But it is impossible to publish the detailed design."
Mr Viravong said studies have highlighted sediment and fish migration as two key areas of concern _ the redesign was made to address these concerns. There have been no issues raised with regards to dam stability and construction standards, he said.
The new design incorporates the creation of spillways and sediment outlet gates at the barrages, which will allow sediment to shift downstream.
A fish passage has also been created to alleviate the impact of the dam on local migratory fish. The passage will allow the fish to swim up- and down-stream naturally, rather than taking the stepped approach of a fish ladder.
The financing process for the dam has also ditched the traditional method of the Lao government joint-funding major infrastructure projects with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in favour of a public-private partnership. The World Bank requires a bid to be held for any infrastructure development projects.
Mr Viravong said the contract for the Xayaburi dam construction was awarded without a bidding process as he thought it was too complicated. "Sometimes cheaper prices do not correspond with good quality," he said.
"In fact I asked the World Bank and the ADB to help because we are forming a joint venture with the private sector. But they are not interested. They said from the beginning that they are not supposed to be involved in any projects on the Mekong River."
Mr Viravong said the design of the dam would benefit from the use of technology, and its environmental impacts would be minimised.
Asked if there was any possibility of the dam being halted, Mr Viravong said: "There will always a chance. When you start digging, anything can happen. The tunnel might collapse. We may find limestone," he said.
"There might be force majeure. If people don't agree with us, and want us to stay poor, that's okay.
"[Hydro-electric dams] have been constructed like this for 50-60 years on major rivers.
"Every year, thousand of megawatts have been generated. Look at Belo Monte on the Amazon and the many projects in China. This does not happen on the Mekong only."
Mr Viravong said the Lao government also has plans to build two other hydropower dams in Laung Prabang, called Nam Kang 2 and 3, with reservoirs.
"People are confident there will not be any problems. They are happy that they can share water from the reservoirs. There are multiple purposes. Laos people are not afraid of dams."
Pianporn Deetes, from the environmental NGO International Rivers, has voiced strong opposition to the construction of the dam, saying Xayaburi Power Co lacks the capacity to employ technology that would help mitigate environmental impacts, notably on fisheries and changes in the ecology of the river and downstream communities.
"The company should stick to the MRC's conclusion that the construction should be halted until further studies are completed. I believe this is a critical time for the governments of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to coordinate in trying to suspend the dam construction," she said.
"The support given to the dam by the Thai government also raises questions of whether it is putting private benefits over public interest," she said, referring to comments made by Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichachaikul earlier this month which endorsed the project.
Ms Pianporn said Thailand should be particularly concerned by the Xayaburi dam given its close proximity to the Thai border.
The construction could affect ecological systems and fisheries, particularly because 70% of fish in the Mekong River are long-distance migratory fish.
There is no existing technology that can effectively mitigate the impacts, she said.
"The fish ladders at Pak Moon dam are a good example. They are rubbish."
About the author
- Writer: Parista Yuthamanop