Activists welcomed a delay in the decision-making process on the proposed US$3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in Laos yesterday, but warned that the next step for the controversial project was far from clear.
Global environmental organisation World Wildlife Fund for Nature said the deferral on whether to end talks on the dam – the result of a Mekong River Commission meeting made up of representatives of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in Vientiane on Tuesday – signaled “recognition of potential negative impacts” of the dam.
“The MRC has taken an important step towards responsible decision-making and is clearly looking at the potential impacts the Xayaburi dam would have on millions of people in the Mekong river basin,” Jian-hua Meng, hydropower specialist for the WWF, said in a press statement.
Government ministers from the four countries have now been tasked with reaching a decision on whether to conclude discussion on the proposal, which international experts and environmentalists have warned could irreversibly change the river and block migration routes for dozens of fish species.
The ministers, who govern the MRC, are expected to meet in October or November.
Meach Mean, coordinator for the 3S Rivers Protection Network, called the delay “good news”, but added that activists would still urge the four countries to agree to a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams, and called for further study and consultations that would include communities affected by the project.
Ame Trandem, Mekong campaigner for the conservation organisation International Rivers, also welcomed the decision and the transparency of the meeting but said it was “confusing” as to what would happen next. However, she believes that it would be difficult for the government ministers to ignore the objections raised on Tuesday.
Cambodia and Thailand have said more time and information was necessary to consider the project, while Vietnam said Xayaburi and all mainstream dams should be delayed for at least 10 years, if not cancelled outright.
A technical review of the Xayaburi proposal by the MRC concluded that the lack of knowledge about how mainstream dams would affect the Mekong was so great that the full extent of their impact could not be estimated or adequately managed. That report followed a study commissioned by the MRC last year that recommended the countries hold decisions on mainstream dams for a decade.
But the position of Laos, which urged an end to regional talks and argued that any cross-border impacts from the dam were “unlikely”, has raised questions about the viability of finding common ground between the four countries through the MRC.
Laos, which sees exporting hydropower as its path out of poverty, hasr reportedly allowed major infrastructure construction to begin near the proposed dam site. Trandem cast doubt on whether Xayaburi or other mainstream dams would bring development to Laos, which has said it wants to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”.
“It undermines the development they want by hurting the livelihoods and food security of people who live along the river,” she said.
“That is not development.”
Trandem said Laos should halt any construction immediately and respect the outcome of the meeting, adding that the 1995 Mekong Agreement committed the four countries to cooperate “in good faith” on major
infrastructure projects affecting the river.
“We don’t see this [good faith negotiating] happening and it raises questions of what is the point of the MRC?” Trandem said.
“What credibility does it have if this moves forward and jeopardises relations between countries?”
Chith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, said neglecting the concerns of other countries could raise the potential for conflict in the region.
“If they go ahead with the project without listen[ing] or tak[ing] into consideration of the downstream concerns it would escalate into international confrontation,” he said in an email on Tuesday.
Xayaburi, the first of 11 proposed dams for the lower Mekong mainstream, is testing the MRC’s legitimacy and holds clear ramifications for future projects.
While the Mekong Agreement established a regional consultation process for major infrastructure projects that would affect the river, the decision on Xayaburi belongs to Laos.
“The [consultation] is a process that enables the four countries to consult each other on the proposed project but not the process to seek an approval,” Surasak Glahan, communications officer for the MRC, said in an email from Vientiane yesterday.
Trandem said the consultation was “flawed from the start” because it lacked transparency and genuine public engagement. Less than five percent of those who would be affected by the dam in Laos were consulted, she said, and the project’s environmental impact assessment – made public last month – was not available during any of the public consultations.
Surasak said any MRC activity related to Xayaburi at this point would have to wait for a response “from the minister level” of the four countries about how they wish to proceed.
Lim Kean Hor, who as Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology is expected to represent Cambodia at the next meeting on the issue, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mao Hak, director of the department of hydrology and river works at the Ministry, yesterday reiterated Cambodia’s position advanced in Tuesday’s meeting.
“There needs to be further study before making any decision,” Mao Hak said. “We, the team of experts, found there are some points that are lacking, and want more detail, and measures to be used that will mitigate the impact,” he said. “More talks need to be done.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA