The Xayaburi Dam is a hydropower project under construction on the Mekong River in northwest Laos, just across the border from Nan Province, Thailand. Construction began in 2012 and is scheduled to finish in 2019 but the project has been marred by allegations of human rights abuses and concerns over severe environmental and social consequences. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have refused to back the project because of these risks but Thai banks later moved in to fund the project. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has agreed to purchase 95 percent of the power produced by the 1,285-megawatt dam. EarthRights has worked with communities who are already seeing the effects of Xayaburi to amplify their voices and support their organizing efforts.
According to the project’s Social Impact Assessment (SIA) in 2010, the dam will directly affect 4,000 households but independent studies have estimated that it will directly affect as many as 200,000 people as a result of agriculture and fishery impacts. The SIA reported that the dam will displace 458 of these households but again, independent estimates are much higher. The first villagers to be displaced were resettled in 2012, but one year later, a majority of people resettled by the project to Houay Hip village were unemployed, had no access to farmland, and had lost access to electricity.
By damming the mainstream of the Mekong, Xayaburi poses enormous threats to the region’s ecology. The dam will likely block nutrient-rich sediment, negatively impact agriculture. It would also impact the spawning and migration of 229 fish species and may lead to the extinction of 41 of these species, including the Mekong giant catfish.
Local communities have voiced concerns that the project will disrupt their access to food due to impacts on fisheries and increase income inequality, due to impacts on livelihoods and repeated relocation. EarthRights has supported Thai communities who will be affected by the project by calling for the Thai government to fulfill its responsibility to prevent or mitigate the transboundary impacts, and also to withdraw their agreement to purchase the power from the dam.
Soon after construction began on the dam in 2010, 263 local and international NGOs signed on to a letter calling for Mekong governments to cancel the project. In 2011, the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment was made public, sparking activists and international experts to speak out against the dam. Local activists subsequently lobbied ASEAN to stop the project.
After Thai banks agreed to fully finance the project in 2012, Thai villagers from communities along the Mekong organized to protest the dam. A group of these villagers filed a suit in Thai administrative court related to the Power Purchase Agreement for the dam. This case is still ongoing.
In April 2014, EarthRights, Finance and Trade Watch (FTW), Thai communities along the Mekong River, and an international coalition of civil society groups from Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam brought a complaint against Andritz AG, the Austrian manufacturer of the dam’s turbines, under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The complaint alleged that the Xayaburi dam risks driving many already-impoverished families into poverty and malnutrition. This complaint initiated a mediation process, facilitated by the OECD National Contact Point (NCP) for Austria, in which communities at the resettlement area and along the Mekong voiced their concerns. EarthRights advocated strongly in partnership with these communities until they chose to withdraw from the process in early 2017 because it was failing to address key issues with the project. In July 2017, EarthRights and FTW concluded talks with Andritz and the NCP released a joint statement outlining the steps that Andritz will take to address the alleged abuses, including helping to access information at the resettlement site, adhering to Lao law, and improving their internal due diligence policies.
In 2015, the Community Resource Center and other Thai and civil society groups detailed a report on natural resources, business, and human rights to the UN Committee on the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The commissioner for this committee officially accepted and recognized their concerns, prompting the Thai government to later do the same.
The Xayaburi Dam was also the first project to undergo the official Mekong River Commission (MRC) prior consultation process required for all mainstream dams under the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Through the MRC, the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam expressed grave concerns about the dam’s impacts. They called for a halt in construction until further studies could be conducted, particularly of transboundary impacts. The Vietnamese government called for “the decision on the Xayaburi hydropower project as well as all other planned hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream be deferred for at least 10 years,” a recommendation endorsed by the MRC in 2010. The Vietnamese government has also warned that projects like Xayaburi risk regional conflict.
In contrast, given Thai involvement in the project, the Thai government has remained quiet amid the criticism. An independent study concluded that Thailand does not need the power from the dam to meet its future energy needs. Country representatives were unable to reach an agreement through the MRC consultation process, which ended in 2011, prompting the government of Laos to make a unilateral decision to proceed with dam construction. One of the companies hired to assess the project’s impact for the MRC, Finnish engineering firm Pöyry, was later chosen to construct the project.
International Rivers Interactive Timeline for Xayaburi