Review of CNR’s report for Laos on the Xayaburi Dam (June 2012)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In April 2011, the four governments of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—met to discuss the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Laos on the Mekong River.  At this meeting, the governments of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam expressed concerns with the transboundary impacts of the project and requested that further studies be conducted. Over one year later, Laos has still not met these requests.

Instead, the Government of Laos commissioned two desk studies that do not reflect the requests made by the other governments. In May 2011, Laos commissioned Swiss company Pöyry Energy AG to evaluate the Xayaburi Dam’s compliance with the dam design requirements set by the Mekong River Commission. Pöyry completed the study in August 2011 and recommended that construction on the dam proceed despite identifying significant gaps in scientific knowledge about the impacts of the dam. The Pöyry report was widely criticized throughout the region for its technical shortcomings.  

In response to this criticism, Laos hired French dam builder Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) in January 2012 to conduct an independent review of the Pöyry report. In April 2012, the Lao government published the CNR report on its “Powering Progress” website.  Like the Pöyry report, the CNR report has neither produced new knowledge on the Xayaburi Dam’s impacts nor has it responded to the concerns raised by the MRC governments in April 2011.

The CNR report covers only three topics. The CNR report only covers three topics—hydrology, sediment flows, and navigation. The report itself states that it “does not tackle fish migration issues and other environmental impacts.” Many of the concerns raised by Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam around the transboundary impacts of the Xayaburi Dam remain unaddressed.

The CNR report does not respond to the primary concerns of MRC governments. At the April 2011 MRC Special Joint Committee meeting, the governments of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam raised a number of concerns about the impacts of the Xayaburi project. Most of these information gaps are not addressed in the CNR report. As a desk study, the CNR report does not gather additional baseline data. 

The CNR report does not assess transboundary impacts. At the April 2011 meeting, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam all raised concerns about the transboundary impacts of the Xayaburi Dam. Similarly, the MRC’s technical review of the project in March 2011 determined that: “transboundary impacts and possible cumulative effects that may result from hydropower or other infrastructure projects need to be considered…” Lao PDR is also obliged under several international treaties and conventions to assess and mitigate transboundary impacts. So far, no such transboundary impact assessment has been undertaken. 

The CNR report makes “heroic assumptions” about sediment transports. The CNR report examines ways to mitigate the impacts of the Xayaburi Dam on sediment transport in the Mekong River. The report concludes that under ideal conditions, the Xayaburi Dam could be redesigned as a “transparent” dam, where all sediments are transported past the dam. Laos has not indicated if such a redesign might take place. As CNR acknowledges, its report is only a “desk study.” It is unclear if such ideal conditions exist. CNR states, for example, “There is a lack of data about present solid transportation along the Mekong River upstream Xayaburi dam (material size, solid discharge). Thus, data collection on sediment yield and sediment sources is necessary.”

Although the CNR report makes technical recommendations on a few issues such as sediment transport, it does not gather the additional baseline data needed to fully assess the environmental and social impacts of the Xayaburi Dam.