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Xayaburi redux at Lao meet

Environmental activists stage a protest on a boat in Phnom Penh
Environmental activists stage a protest on a boat in Phnom Penh in September calling for Mega First Corporation to stop the construction of the Don Sahong dam in southern Laos. Heng Chivoan

Xayaburi redux at Lao meet

At a special meeting convened in Laos yesterday, the four lower Mekong countries relegated the contentious Don Sahong hydropower project to higher-level discussions later in the year.

“Based on the differing views of its members, the Joint Committee decided to refer the matter to the [Mekong River Commission] Council, the highest MRC governance body which consists of water and environment ministers,” said a statement released by the MRC, the intergovernmental body overseeing the shared waterways.

The regional discussions were initially slated to end yesterday, but Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam each requested Laos extend the dam’s six-month prior consultation period, according to multiple sources who attended the meeting.

Representatives reiterated concerns about gaps in the dam’s current studies, including on impacts of multiple dams and on how the livelihoods of the fish-dependent locals downstream will be affected.

“Cambodia sees the need to have further comprehensive study on trans-boundary [environmental impacts] to Cambodia and downstream areas before moving to the project implementation,” said Te Navuth of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee.

While Cambodia did not specify how long the consultation period should continue, Thailand yesterday requested Laos give the process another six months before building, and Vietnam requested the remainder of the year.

The Lao delegation said it welcomed further discussion, but nonetheless insisted it had “fulfilled all requirements” and was now ready to “exercise its sovereign right to develop its natural resources”.

Yesterday’s meeting, with its combination of objecting downstream neighbours and an obstinate Laos, struck a strong note of deja vu. Four years ago, the intergovernmental committee reached the exact same conclusion for its first prior consultation addressing another of Laos’ controversial dams, the Xayaburi.

In April 2011, the MRC similarly found that the four Mekong countries reached no consensus and relegated the matter higher up the ladder. But ministerial discussions never took place, and Laos forged ahead with construction.

“This is, as many were predicting, a repetition of the scenario for [the Xayaburi], but with some differences,” said Marc Goichot, hydropower specialist for the World Wildlife Fund. “In all three countries, the voices of the affected people and CSOs are getting louder.”

Whether the more united opposition will alter Don Sahong’s course from the Xayaburi’s remains to be seen.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia coordinator for International Rivers, said, “Laos has the moral imperative to comply with neighbouring requests.”

“With the dispute between all four Mekong countries ongoing, it is absolutely essential that all construction activities are halted immediately.”

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