As Consultant Distances Itself, Cracks Appear in Laos’ Portrayal of Xayaburi Dam

Kirk Herbertson
River ferry at one of the villages that will be affected by the dam.
River ferry at one of the villages that would be affected by the dam.

On July 16, the Lao government announced that it would continue construction on the controversial Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River, despite ongoing opposition from neighboring governments. Cambodia and Vietnam continue to express concerns that the project poses a high risk of transboundary impacts. Using a media blitz in the Vientiane Times, Laos justified its actions based entirely on recommendations from two consulting companies, Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) of France and Pöyry Group of Finland. Laos reported in the Times that these companies had studied the dam and concluded that it would not have harmful environmental impacts. 

As it turns out, the Lao government did not read CNR’s recommendations as carefully as it should have. On August 2nd, CNR issued a press release that corrects the way Laos interpreted the consulting company’s findings (see below). This raises the question: have the Xayaburi Dam’s transboundary impacts really been studied yet?

Smoke and mirrors

Since April 2011, the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam have repeatedly asked Laos to conduct further studies on the transboundary impacts of the proposed Xayaburi Dam before any final decision on the project is made. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) secretariat also made this recommendation in its March 2011 technical review of the project. Under a 1995 treaty and international law, Laos is required to meet these requests for information in good faith before any decision is made to proceed with the project.

Laos did not meet these requests and instead hired Pöyry to conduct a desk study of whether the project complies with the MRC guidelines for Mekong dam building. Pöyry concluded that Laos has already met all of its obligations to neighboring governments. Thailand then relied on the Pöyry report to justify signing agreements to purchase the dam’s electricity and provide financing for the project. After the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, scientists, and lawyers questioned the credibility of Pöyry’s report, Laos hired CNR to provide further recommendations. Meanwhile, Pöyry’s glowing review of the Xayaburi Dam earned the company further work as an engineer for the project.

An employee of Poyry presents to a visiting government delegation in July 2012.
An employee of Poyry presents to a visiting government delegation in July 2012.

In April 2012, CNR presented Laos with a report proposing ways to reduce the dam’s impacts on sediment flows in the Mekong River. Large dams can block the flow of sediments down a river, harming fish habitats, causing erosion, and preventing nutrients from reaching agricultural areas downstream. Like Pöyry’s study, it is unclear how independent the CNR study was since it has resulted in further work advising the project. Both companies were commissioned outside the Mekong River Commission’s diplomatic process without consulting neighboring governments. Because of the promise of further contracts, both companies also had a vested interest in providing favorable reviews.

On July 17, the Vientiane Times reported that the dam “has been redesigned to address cross-border concerns, and will become a world leading modern hydropower plant, according to international hydropower plant experts.” Several other articles reassured the public that the Lao government has redesigned the dam to address the concerns of neighboring countries, specifically citing studies by CNR and Pöyry. 

Laos has used CNR’s report in particular as proof that the dam’s impact on sediment flows can be mitigated. On July 25th, for example, the Vientiane Times reported that “Xayaboury hydropower plant, the first run-of-the-river dam in the lower Mekong basin, will not cause any serious impediment to sediment flows to the lower Mekong delta, according to dam consultants contracted.”

What CNR actually said

Yet CNR’s August 2nd press release reveals that Laos was not quite accurate. Even CNR does not regard its report as proof that the dam’s impact on sediment flows can be mitigated. Rather, it emphasized that its recommendations are only conceptual and need to be further developed:

“Knowing that almost half of the sediment supply of the Mekong delta is coming from upstream of the project, sediment transport issue is one of the most important for the Xayaburi dam. Thus, solutions have been proposed at the conceptual level by the CNR, based on its experience of operator of run of river dams. These solutions need to be developed and their costs evaluated.”

This statement is consistent with International Rivers' view that CNR’s report is based largely on theory that has never been used successfully in the Mekong region (and arguably not in Europe either). As CNR acknowledged in its April report, it only conducted a “desk study” and “there is a lack of data about present solid transportation along the Mekong River…Thus, data collection on sediment yield and sediment sources is necessary.” Without this basic information, it is quite difficult to design appropriate mitigation measures or even know if such mitigation measures are possible.

People living in Ban Pak Pho have received mixed messages from the company about how they will be affected.
People living in Ban Pak Pho have received mixed messages from the company about how they will be affected.

Sediment flows are not the only concern that remains unresolved. Experts in neighboring countries are also concerned about the dam’s effect on fisheries, among other issues. Pöyry recommended designing a fish passage system while construction on the dam is underway. Laos insists that such a system – untested and improvised – would unquestionably work. In its press release, CNR distanced itself from Pöyry’s recommendations, saying that “the CNR mission has neither encompassed the evaluation of fish migration nor other environmental issues.”

Meanwhile, if construction continues, it is likely to cause significant damage to the fish and ecosystems of the Mekong River before the fish passage system is even in place.

Dusting off the Mekong River Commission’s recommendations

CNR also reminds us of the importance of complying with the MRC’s standards for dam-building: “The MRC…has also issued guidelines applicable to dam projects in the Mekong basin, which should be respected.” In August 2011, Pöyry concluded that the Xayaburi Dam “has principally been designed in accordance with the applicable MRC Design Guidelines,” despite identifying over 40 major scientific and technical studies that still need to be completed. Other governments in the region dismissed Pöyry’s conclusion as nonsense. As a result, Laos’ continued reliance on the same company for recommendations has baffled scientists and government officials.

The MRC’s guidelines are long and technical, but include such requirements as:

  • Fish passage technologies must be proven: “Effective fish passage is usually defined as providing safe passage for 95% of the target species under all flow conditions.” (Para. 61)
  • Fisheries impact studies must take place before construction begins: “The planning and design of the fishways should be fully integrated into the dam design concept from the earliest stages of planning.” (Para. 12)
  • Sediment management strategies must be reviewed by an independent expert: “All planned sediment management strategies should be thoroughly evaluated and subject to independent expert review for their likely effectiveness and impact prior to implementation at the developer’s expense.” (Para. 123)

None of these standards have been addressed (see the chart below for more examples). CNR’s press release is an important reminder of just how far the Xayaburi Dam remains from being an environmentally sustainable project.

So does this let CNR off the hook? Certainly not. As long as CNR remains an active advisor to ongoing construction at the Xayaburi Dam, the company benefits from and remains responsible for the environmental and social harm that the project is already causing. As the Cambodian, Vietnamese and donor governments discuss next steps, it will be important to insist on the use of independent companies going forward.