Updated at 6:30 p.m. EST on 2012-04-25
Cambodia has threatened to haul Laos into an international court if it allows a Thai company to push ahead with construction of the Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River without any regional consensus.
The warning came two days after Thai firm Ch. Karnchang signed a U.S. $1.7 billion dollar contract to go full steam ahead with the hydropower project in northern Laos even though governments in the region have not cleared the dam’s construction, also opposed by green groups.
Sin Niny, permanent vice-chairman of Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee, urged Laos to abide by regional agreements made under the auspices of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body of four countries that share the river.
Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam had agreed in principle at a previous summit in December that further studies on the impact of the dam—which would be the first mainstream dam on the Lower Mekong—were needed before it could be built.
“There must be a discussion before Laos can proceed with the construction. If Laos has decided unilaterally, then according to law, we can file a complaint to an international court,” he told RFA Thursday.
He did not cite any courts, but disputes of such nature are usually handled by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the primary judicial organ of the United Nations.
Sin Niny said the committee would wait until after the MRC’s upcoming summit in Japan before making any decision.
Leaders from the four countries will take part in the talks in Tokyo on Friday and Saturday and are expected to map out a new cooperation plan for management of the river resources through 2015.
Ch. Karnchang signed the agreement with Xayaburi Power Co. on Tuesday that set the start date for the construction as March 15, 2012.
Preliminary construction in the area, including work on access roads and the relocation of villages, has already begun without the blessings of the regional leadership.
Lao officials contacted by RFA on Thursday refused to comment on the contract or construction.
Ch. Karnchang representatives also refused to provide other details on the construction of the dam before its shareholders’ meeting scheduled for April 24.
The 1,260-megawatt dam would provide 95 percent of its electricity to Thailand.
Sin Niny added that the recent news about the dam’s construction did not surprise him, saying that both Thailand and Laos were eager to go ahead with the project for mutual benefit.
“It is about interest. The company that is building the dam is Thai, and when the construction is finished they will sell the electricity to Thailand, so both Thailand and Laos will benefit from the project,” he said.
Activists in Thailand, including an environmental group with representatives from riparian communities in eight northeastern provinces in the country, have opposed the dam and said they will stage a protest in Bangkok next week.
Meach Mean, coordinator for the Cambodian NGO Mekong Conservation, accused Laos of violating the MRC’s agreement that Lao would suspend the construction until further studies are conducted.
He added that millions of people in the region rely on the river for their livelihoods.
“The dam will seriously affect countries downstream on the Mekong. It would affect the water flow,” he said.
The Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s main artery, flows through China, Tibet, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The Xayaburi dam would be the first mainstream dam on the Lower Mekong, aside from five already built on the Upper Mekong in China.
Laos, which has planned over 70 dams on its rivers, has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer service and Nontharat Phaicharoen for RFA's Lao service. Translated by Samean Yun and Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.