Xayaburi Reaching A Critical Point

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By Nhina Le

The World Bank has blacklisted the Pöyry Group, which has faced criticism on its research into the Xayaburi hydro dam project. According to the Bank’s website, they have stated that they will not conduct any business with Pöyry for three years. The penalty is for allegedly “submitting false invoices and providing improper benefits.” Laos commissioned Pöyry Energy AG in 2011 to investigate whether or not the proposed 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River would comply with the Mekong River Commission (MRC)’s requirements. Though the boycott has not been directly linked to Pöyry’s work on the Xayaburi project, some critics say it is indicative of the questionable nature of the companies that Laos has chosen to work with.

The findings of this group are problematic in the eyes of Mekong countries and concerned international and regional communities. On the one hand, the group advised Laos to continue with Xayaburi dam construction, stating that the dam was in compliance with the MRC. On the other hand, Pöyry identified over 40 additional studies to bring the project into compliance. Kirk Herbertson, the Southeast Asia policy coordinator for International Rivers, believes that this incident reflects the fact that the Laotian government has chosen to deal with companies, including Pöyry, that would best help the government and Thai development interests justify or rationalize its continued construction of the Xayaburi dam.

In Kirk Herbertson’s Testing the Waters: Laos Pushes Xayaburi Dam to Critical Point, the author argues that Lao’s commitment to suspend construction is at best understood as “an empty one,” or at worst “a lie,” as Laos continues to allow the developer to work on site preparation. Herbertson writes that during a visit to Luang Prabang in northern Laos by 70 representatives of foreign governments, the Lao Deputy Prime Minister Viraphonh Viravong explicitly stated that construction would continue on everything but the dam itself during the period when additional studies of its impact would be underway.  Reportedly these activities would include dredging and widening the river, constructing the powerhouse, and even “coffer dams” to divert flow of the river away from the construction area.

Rather than just a simple reflection of a complicated or contradictory agenda, he believes that the Laos’ government may be testing how far or how long it can continue pushing the Xayaburi dam project forward without further generating and intensifying conflicts with its neighboring countries. The Laotian elites, said Herbertson, are hoping to shift the discussion with the concerned international NGOs and regional civil society organizations and affected communities away from “whether or not the dam should be approved?” to “how to address or mitigate the dam’s impacts?”

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