A regional commission in charge of managing Southeast Asia’s Mekong River will this week discuss the possible implications of a major dam project being constructed on the key artery despite regional objections, according to an official in Thailand.
The official from Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment indicated however that Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam will not challenge the Lao government’s unilateral decision to proceed with the Xayaburi dam project at the meeting of the four-nation Mekong River Commission (MRC) beginning Wednesday.
He said that the Lao government had claimed sovereign right to proceed with the U.S. $3.5 billion hydropower megadam despite previous sharp criticism from downstream countries Cambodia and Vietnam as well as environmental groups.
“There will be no debate over the project, but we may talk about other things that revolve around the project,” he told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity, ahead of the three-day ministerial meeting of the intergovernmental body which manages development along the waterway.
Laos officially began work on the project, the first across the main stream of the Lower Mekong, after a groundbreaking ceremony in November.
The MRC had ruled at a meeting in 2011 that further study was needed on the impact of main stream hydropower projects, although its recommendations are not binding to member nations.
Reports had said that the Xayaburi dam will not be officially on the agenda at this week's talks. The MRC has not made a statement on the meeting. On its website, it said, “sorry, no upcoming events.”
Commenting on the reports that the dam was not included in the meeting’s agenda, the official said, “The Lao government is using its sovereign right to forge ahead with the project.”
Officials attending the meeting will also make a field trip to the Xayaburi dam site, said the official, who will accompany his minister to the talks.
According to the official, a journalist from the media in Thailand—where the dam has been criticized by residents of downstream riparian communities and members of parliament—will be allowed to attend the meeting and be the first reporter from a Mekong country officially allowed to visit the site.
On Tuesday, villagers from communities in Thailand’s eight provinces along the Mekong sent a letter to the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment demanding that he call the Xayaburi dam project into question at Wednesday’s meeting.
“We have sent a letter to the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, as he is also a member of the council of the MRC, asking that the topic of the Xayaburi dam be included in the meeting agenda,” Ittiphonh Khamsouk, a representative of the group, told RFA’s Lao Service.
“The letter has been faxed to the ministry, but so far we have not received any response on what is going to happen,” he said.
The appeal came as a number of Thai lawmakers held a press conference in Bangkok on Tuesday calling on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to reconsider a government decision to purchase electricity that will be generated by the Lao dam.
The 1,200 megawatt dam is being financed by companies in Thailand, where 95 percent of the dam’s electricity will be sent, and built by the Bangkok-based Ch. Karnchang in cooperation with Laos’s Xayaburi Power Co.
The Thai lawmakers said the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT) should not have signed the power purchase agreement until the project is fully endorsed by the MRC, citing divisions on the matter between the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ministry of Energy, which oversees EGAT.
They said that of particular concern is the potential cross-border impact the dam construction will have on the ecology, agriculture, and food security of the 65 million people who live downstream from the site in neighboring MRC nations.
The Xayaburi dam also drew criticism from international environmental watchdogs which pointed to the Lao government’s failure to address the concerns of its Mekong neighbors ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the ministers from the MRC member nations should “put derailed decision-making on Mekong River mainstream dams back on track or risk sabotaging management of one of the world’s great rivers.”
“The Xayaburi Dam experiment threatens the health and productivity of the Mekong River and Delta, and could leave millions of people facing critical food insecurity,” Jian-hua Meng, WWF’s Sustainable Hydropower Specialist, said in a statement.
“Ministers must take a stand against Xayaburi-style diplomacy or it will be the dangerous precedent for the future.”
The WWF called the project “a crucial test case” for 10 other dams proposed for the lower mainstream of the Mekong, saying that without a study on the impact of the dam on the Mekong River as proposed by the MRC, any development on the Xayaburi project will be based largely on “guesswork.”
“A fix it as you go approach with Xayaburi dam, and throwing money at problems as they inevitably arise, is not sound engineering nor smart development,” Meng said.
WWF called on Thailand to cancel its power agreement with the project and for Thai banks to pull out of negotiations to finance the dam.
It also urged the Mekong ministers to defer a decision on the dam for 10 years to allow sufficient collection of data on the project’s impact before construction proceeds.
If decision-making continues to occur outside of the MRC, “the institution will soon lose its legitimacy,” the WWF said.
California-based International Rivers accused Laos of having misinterpreted the Mekong Agreement it signed along with Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam in 1995 and having failed to comply with several of its key requirements.
The group said that Laos is required to seek agreement with its neighbors before proceeding, provide other governments the opportunity to evaluate the project’s impacts, and cannot implement the project while consultations are underway.
International Rivers said that Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand have the right to extend the consultation timeframe for the project and that the three countries also have the right to seek compensation for any harm caused by the dam.
“The Xayaburi Dam has set a dangerous precedent that could undermine future cooperation,” it said.
“Unless reforms are made quickly, disagreements over the Mekong dams could escalate into a conflict with serious economic and political implications.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.