A top court in Thailand agreed on Tuesday to hear a lawsuit brought by villagers against the country’s decision to purchase power from the planned Xayaburi mega dam in neighboring Laos, which green groups say could threaten the region’s environment and food security.
Overruling a lower court decision, the Thai Supreme Administrative Court said it had jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit filed by villagers living along the mighty Mekong River, on which the dam is to be built.
The case will have no direct impact on the Lao government’s decision to go ahead with the dam project.
But any court decision in the future that questions the validity of a power purchase agreement signed between the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Xayaburi electricity generating company could dampen the U.S. $3.5 billion dam project.
EGAT will buy 95 percent of the power from the Xayaburi Power Company Limited under the agreement.
Thirty-seven Thai villagers had filed a case nearly two years ago against EGAT and the National Energy Policy Council and three other government bodies, saying the power purchase agreement is illegal, approved without an assessment of the project’s environmental and health impacts and without consultations in Thailand.
The court on Tuesday accepted only one of the four points pursued in the lawsuit—that the National Energy Policy Council and EGAT failed to disclose all information on the power purchase agreement and on a survey of villagers that had been conducted along the Mekong, a lawyer for the villagers told reporters.
“The court feels it can accept the case, and the next step [is for] the court [to call] the five state agencies to come down and testify," lawyer Sor Rattanamanee Polkla said.
The court however said it does not have jurisdiction to hear the villagers’ demand for a cancelation of the power purchase agreement between the EGAT and the Xayaburi company.
“The court considered this an administrative matter which has nothing to do with the petitioners,” Sor said. “The court couldn't accept this."
Global environmental group International Rivers said the power purchase agreement was approved without an assessment of the project’s environmental and health impacts, and without consultations in Thailand, in violation of the Thai Constitution.
The villagers who brought forward the lawsuit come from areas along the Mekong River that would be directly impacted by the Xayaburi Dam, it said in a report.
It would be within the Thai court’s powers to suspend the agreement until transboundary impact studies are carried out and consultations are held in Thailand, International Rivers said.
“Ultimately if the court finds that the [agreement] was approved illegally, it could cancel the agreement altogether.”
The Nation, a leading Thai newspaper, said that “if the contract is cancelled, there is a possibility the ongoing construction may come to a halt.”
“The Egat, after all, is a major buyer of electricity from this dam project.”
Laos officially launched construction on the Xayaburi dam in November 2012. It is the first dam across the main stem of the Lower Mekong.
The move has met with criticism from its neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam as well as environmental groups.
The Xayaburi, along with another proposed Lao dam, in Don Sahong, also on the Mekong, poses a regional security threat for the some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the key regional artery for their nutrition and their livelihoods, environmental and conservation groups say.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.