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Anger floating downstream

2 Xayaburi dam

In a united stand against hydropower dam projects on the Mekong River and its tributaries, villagers and NGO workers from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam yesterday called on governments to cancel projects such as Laos’s Xayaburi dam.

Frustrated that their governments either financially support such projects or have failed to publicly oppose them, about 200 people who live along the major river and its tributaries attended a forum convened by groups including NGO Forum on Cambodia.

“Along with 12 proposed Mekong mainstream dams, most of the major Mekong tributaries in the region are now full with many existing and proposed dams,” a joint statement reads. “Yet, no meaningful dialogue to solve existing problems and prevent further destruction has yet occurred in the region.”

The message coming out of the two-day forum was hardly new, but those involved hoped the diversity of voices spreading it would better catch the attention of lawmakers.

“We hope that [government] representatives will take note of the findings here today and work with us to address energy issues in our country,” said Trang Tham, a community representative from Ratanakkiri.

Omboun Tipsuna, from a network of Mekong community organisations in Thailand, said villagers in her country were concerned about river erosion and a reduction in fish stocks and had already felt the effects of Chinese dams upstream. “We have reasons why we’re against these dams,” she said. “Sixty million [people] benefit from the river.”

It is now up to villagers and NGOs to work collectively to make their governments listen, she added. “You are promoters,” she said to the audience. “We are boxers. There will be boxing. We will not hang up our gloves.”

Lam Thi Thu Suu, co-ordinator of Vietnam River Network (VRN), said such discussion was exactly what organisers and participants wanted.

“While the information about the region is not always available – at least on mass media and in Vietnamese – coming to the meeting will help Vietnamese activist groups . . . and journalists understand the problem and risks,” she said.

Laos began building the Xayaburi dam in November without the approval of Cambodia and Vietnam. Neither country, however, spoke out in any great way once construction began. Since then, Cambodia has approved the Lower Sesan 2 dam on a Mekong tributary in Stung Treng province.

Noticeably missing from the forum yesterday were representatives of Lao civil society.

“Unfortunately, hydropower is far too sensitive inside Laos. None of the civil society groups could join – it would be too dangerous for them,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers. “With [hydropower activist] Sombath Somphone’s disappearance [last December] . . . right now, a lot of our partners are still in hiding, and people are too scared to be seen in a forum where hydropower issues are discussed.”

Trandem’s colleague, Songqiao Yao, said that due to political pressure, few NGOs worked on hydropower issues in China, despite the government having already built six dams on the Mekong,  which were affecting countries downstream.

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