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Call for delay on dam

Cambodia will ask Laos to delay a controversial US$3.8 billion dam on the lower Mekong tomorrow, an official said yesterday, after a United States senator warned of the project’s “devastating consequences” for the region. Infrastructure construction near the site was said to be underway.

Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said the request would be made by the Kingdom’s delegation to a crunch meeting in Vientiane, where representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam will decide whether to endorse the Xayaburi dam.

“We would ask for additional information [and] more studies, because we see that the current design [and] current operations are lacking some information requirements,” he said, adding that they would need more time to consider the project.

Te Navuth said the current proposal for the dam would prevent a number of fish species from migrating up and down the river, echoing concerns by experts and environmentalists.

The Mekong River Commission, a regional inter-governmental body created to jointly manage the Mekong, said in a review of the dam project published last month that proposed fish ladders – a series of ascending pools that help fish to migrate over a dam – were “ineffective”.

It concluded further that a lack of knowledge about how the dam would impact upon fish raised “significant questions” about whether its effects could be measured or controlled.

Te Navuth also said the environmental impact assessment prepared by CH Karnchang Public Company Limited, the Thai company heading the project, did not account for the dam’s cross-border impact.

The assessment, made public last month, considered the project’s impact only within 10 kilometres of the dam. The World Wildlife Fund released an analysis of the report’s conclusions about fish and fisheries last week, concluding that it was “woefully inadequate”.

Tomorrow’s meeting comes amid mounting international concern.

An American senator, who chairs the subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said last week that the dam could have “devastating consequences” for Southeast Asia.

“To avoid irreversible damage to the region, I believe it would be prudent to delay the construction of any any mainstream dam along the river, including those along the Upper Mekong River, until adequate planning and multilateral coordination can be guaranteed,” Senator Jim Webb said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“Absent this collaborative approach, the stability of Southeast Asia is at risk,” Webb said.

Meanwhile, an investigation released yesterday by the Bangkok Post found major road construction well underway near the site of the project and a fleet of trucks and diggers with CH Karnchang’s logo, some of which could be seen clearing and grading roads.

Several villagers said Lao officials told them they would receive US$15 in relocation compensation. Other people had moved in, seeking jobs and opening shops.

Roads were being built over an area more than 30 kilometres from the project site, the Bangkok Post said. Residents said road construction began about five months ago.

The evidence of infrastructure construction supporting the dam follow statements by Laos and CH Karnchang indicating they would move ahead with the project regardless of the Mekong River Commission outcome.

Laos submitted the Xayaburi dam proposal to the MRC in September.  That notification initiated a process of consultation among the four countries – required by the treaty – to take place before major infrastructure projects on the river proceed, particularly if they could have significant cross-border impacts.

Lao officials said at a meeting of the MRC in February that the dam “will not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream”, and there was “no need for any extension of time” for its approval.

“The final decision as how to further proceed with the project development would of course be solely subject to the Lao PDR Government,” the statement said.

A deadline for the decision on the project is April 22, though an extension is possible.

Surasak Glahan, communications officer at the MRC, said yesterday that the four countries “will reach a conclusion” on the consultation process at tomorrow’s meeting. “There will be a conclusion on whether or not this process should be complete, or if it should be extended or if the project should be delayed,” he said, “and if the project will proceed, on what conditions it will proceed.”

International Rivers, a conservation group, estimates that 2,100 people will be forcibly resettled by the dam, while another 202,000 people will be directly affected. The Xayaburi dam is one of 11 proposed for the lower Mekong.

A study commissioned by the MRC recommended in October, however, that decisions on all mainstream dams be delayed for another decade.

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