The Xayaburi Dam: Threatening Food Security in the Mekong

Kirk Herbertson
Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A water conflict has emerged in Southeast Asia over the proposed 1,285 MW Xayaburi Hydropower Project in Laos. The conflict focuses largely on the impact that this and other Mekong dams will have on food security. Over 60 million people live in the Lower Mekong Basin, and 80% depend on the river system for their food and livelihoods. The project will harm fisheries, block the flow of sediments and nutrients downstream, and flood the homes and agricultural lands of hundreds of thousands of people. 

Even in the early stages of construction at the Xayaburi Dam site, threats to food security are emerging (See full report below). On 14-18 June 2012, International Rivers traveled to Laos and interviewed 77 households in fifteen of the villages affected by the Xayaburi project. One village has already been resettled. Within the next few years, at least 2,100 people will be resettled. If the dam is completed and the impoundment area is filled, an estimated 200,000 more people will have their agricultural land flooded and fish catch reduced. 

The project’s developers, including Thai company Ch. Karnchang and the Lao government, have promised to build new resettlement homes for some villagers, compensate people for lost trees and gardens, and provide new job training. As this report demonstrates, however, these efforts have not been sufficient. Food insecurity is growing near the Xayaburi Dam site, as communities lose access to the Mekong River resources on which they depend. 

Key findings of this report include the following.

Resettlement activities at the Xayaburi Dam site have violated Lao law. 

The first village was resettled in January 2012 and the livelihoods of many people have still not been restored. (See Annex 1). Seven other villages are likely to be affected by 2013 or 2014—five villages will be resettled and merged with two existing villages where land is scarce. Compensation is not being provided for lost fisheries, gold panning, and other uses of natural resources, as required by Lao law. All together, Thai builder Ch. Karnchang has violated at least 22 standards in Laos’ 2005 resettlement and compensation decree, and only partially complied with eight standards (See Annex 2). The Lao government has also committed to follow the World Bank’s resettlement standards, but a closer look reveals numerous violations of this standard as well (See Annex 3). 

Laos has not fulfilled its commitment to study the project’s transboundary impacts. 

The impacts of the dam will extend into Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Both Cambodia and Vietnam have called for further studies on the dams’ impacts before making any decisions on whether to proceed. Laos is required under the 1995 Mekong Agreement’s procedures and international law to meet these requests, but has not done so (see Annex 4). Instead, Laos has relied exclusively on two consultants’ desk studies that do not assess transboundary impacts.

The project developers have not set aside adequate time to resolve the Xayaburi Dam’s food security concerns. 

Despite the conflict, construction continues on schedule. The project developer plans to resettle five more villages within the next year and complete construction on the project’s “coffer dam” by May 2013. These activities will adversely impact food security. 

No solutions have been found to fully mitigate the Xayaburi Dam’s impacts. 

The project developers have not fully studied the food security risks, but have guaranteed that their proposed mitigation measures will work. In contrast, scientists at the MRC Secretariat, International Centre for Environmental Management, and WWF have concluded that no mitigation solutions have been found to fully replace the food security that will be lost by building the Mekong dams.

There is need for an immediate stop to all construction and relocation activities. 

Even in the early stages of construction, the Xayaburi Dam illustrates the food security challenges that will arise from building large dams on the Lower Mekong River. Given the risks involved, it is urgent that the Xayaburi Dam builders stop all relocation activities and delay further construction, so that adequate time can be set aside to study the dam’s impacts in more depth. Only in this way can the four MRC governments proceed towards an informed, mutually agreeable solution.