Laos yesterday defended its decision to begin building the Xayaburi dam amid criticism from Cambodia on a lively final day of the Mekong River Commission’s annual council meeting in Luang Prabang, Laos.
According to separate sources who attended, Cambodia spoke out against Laos for “misinterpreting” the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the prior consultation process that was designed to have prevented it from constructing the 1,285-megawatt dam without approval from its neighbours.
Laos’s delegation, led by Vice-Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong, however, denied breaching any agreements by beginning construction last November – before requested studies were carried out into potential impacts downstream – MRC secretariat communications officer Surasak Glahan said last night.
“[Viravong] re-confirmed the position of Laos that the country had followed strictly the requirements for the prior consultation process,” he said.
Kirk Herbertson, Southeast Asia policy coordinator for environmental group International Rivers, said he was happy Cambodia had raised concerns about the 1995 agreement and the shortcomings of the Xayaburi prior consultation process – which is still technically active – and added that Vietnam called for a halt to all mainstream development. “But what happened were words,” he said.
“We will be looking to see signs of progress in the next few months. Ideally, we’d like to see Xayaburi postponed, [and] like Vietnam, we ask for all future projects to be postponed.”
“It is our consensus that building dams on the mainstream of the Mekong may irrevocably change the river and hence constitute a challenge for food security, sustainable development and biodiversity conservation,” the statement says.
Jake Brunner, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s program coordinator for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar, said the future of dams on the mainstream Mekong would be influenced by how the MRC’s shortcomings were addressed.
“It’s hard to justify further large-scale international support to the MRC in its current form. There’s no reason [it] will have more success with the next mainstream dam,” he said.
“The agreement needs to be strengthened to ensure that one country can’t ignore the justified concerns of the other countries of major irreversible trans-boundary impacts. And that’s a political challenge, not a technical one.”
Tep Asnarith, communications manager for WWF-Cambodia, said his organisation – a development partner – was barred from attending for the first time in a decade.
“No explanation was communicated to WWF to support this decision,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Shane Worrell at [email protected]