Laos’s decision to plow ahead with the Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River is causing concern among neighboring countries and the international community, Vietnam told a regional ministerial meeting this week.
At the meeting of the Mekong River Commission, Cambodia called for further research on the U.S. $3.5 billion hydropower dam project while international donors said they were distressed by its potential social impact and environmental risks.
The Lao government unilaterally decided to officially launch the Xayaburi project in north of the country late last year despite concerns expressed by neighboring governments and environment groups.
It is the first dam along the main stem of the Southeast Asian waterway and is seen as a key test for a slew of other dams planned across the river.
Nguyen Thai Lai, Vietnam’s deputy minister of natural resources and the environment, said Laos’s neighbors and other countries were worried about the project’s impact in the region.
“Especially, [the] launching of the first mainstream hydropower project recently in the Lower Mekong Basin is causing concerns of the governments of the riparian countries in the region and the international community about its adverse impacts on the downstream areas,” Lai said at the MRC meeting Thursday.
The MRC is an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam that manages development along the Mekong River, a key regional artery.
Lai said Vietnam will be conducting its own study on Mekong mainstream hydropower, in a project beginning this year that will supplement an MRC-initiated assessment.
The dam is subject to a review process through the MRC but the body's recommendations are non-binding.
Lai stressed the need for Laos and other countries to “show responsibility” for hydropower development on the river “while we are still trying to understand its impacts.”
MRC member countries should assure that any future water resource development proposed in the region should “be considered with due care and full precaution based on best scientific understanding of the potential impacts,” he said.
Need more more study
Laos has said it has addressed its neighbors’ concerns and denied that other countries are opposed to the project.
Laos decided to go ahead with the dam, which will produce electricity for export to Thailand, despite an earlier recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong mainstream dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic impact.
Cambodia’s Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor told the MRC meeting that since late last year, the four nations in the commission had “reached a consensus” on the need for more study on dams on the river.
After investigating impacts that dams could have “on the people and the environment,” members agreed further study is needed “on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River, including the effects from mainstream hydropower development projects,” he said.
“This decision has received strong support and has been welcome by all stakeholders,” he said.
The Xayaburi project is being seen as a test for the decision-making processes of the MRC, which is tasked with overseeing management of the Mekong’s water resources.
A group of 17 donor countries and organizations that together provide the majority of the commission’s funding said in a joint statement on Thursday that they were worried about the dam’s impacts.
“We remain concerned about the social impacts and environmental risks associated with the construction of the Xayaburi hydropower dam,” the statement said, noting that alterations to the initial design have not yet been formally communicated through the MRC.
“We strongly encourage the Government of Laos to share the revised design plans for the Xayaburi project with the MRC Secretariat as soon as possible.”
They also said they were “highly concerned” by the MRC’s refusal to invite to the meeting the World Wildlife Fund, a partner organization that had participated in MRC Council meetings as an observer since 2001.
The WWF, a global environmental group, has strongly criticized the Xayaburi project and the MRC ministers’ handling of the issue, saying they risked “sabotaging” management of the Mekong.
Environmental group International Rivers said that MRC discussions about Xayaburi had demonstrated that the institution’s decision-making process was flawed and urged better review of future projects.
“The Mekong River Commission is in desperate need of legal and institutional reform. It’s a broken process that needs immediate fixing,” Kirk Herbertson, the group’s Southeast Asia Policy Coordinator said in a statement.
“No further projects should be allowed to undergo the MRC’s prior consultation process until an immediate review of the process is carried out by the four governments, with the participation of the region’s public.”
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.