Updated 3:00 p.m. EST on 2012-05-10
Laos has suspended construction on the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River following an uproar from neighboring Cambodia and environmental groups, a senior Lao government official said Wednesday.
An agreement was signed between companies for construction of the dam project from March this year even though a four-nation commission which manages development along Southeast Asia’s key river has not given the go-ahead for the project.
“No construction is going on; it’s discontinued, postponed,” Sithong Chitgnothin, director of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department, told RFA's Lao service Wednesday in what is believed to be the first government statement that construction will be halted.
He said that Laos would stand by agreements of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia’s main waterway.
“The agreement of the four MRC members still stands and the Lao government will always abide by it,” Chitgnothin said.
In a landmark ruling in December, MRC member countries agreed that the dam project should not proceed until further assessment was conducted.
The decision followed an earlier recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams—of which Xayaburi would be the first on the lower part of the river—due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
But in April, Thai company Ch. Karnchang announced it had signed a U.S. $1.7 billion contract with Xayaburi Power Co. for construction of the 1,290-megawatt dam, prompting protests from green groups in Thailand, where most of the dam’s electricity would be sent.
In the contract, the company set a start date for the construction on the dam in March 2012, in spite of the December MRC agreement that the dam should wait for further study.
Environmental groups monitoring the dam have said that preliminary construction around the dam site, including of roads and support facilities, has begun, but officials say work on the dam itself had not yet started.
Cambodia lodged its complaint in a letter to Lao MRC representatives last week, opposing the preliminary construction and warning Laos not to allow the dam to move ahead.
The letter followed earlier threats from Cambodia to take Laos to international court over the dam.
Through the MRC, established in 1995, member countries have agreed to a protocol for consulting with and notifying each other about use of the river’s resources, but the organization has no binding jurisdiction on what Laos does about the dam.
On Tuesday, an MRC spokesman reiterated that its members were in agreement that the project should be halted pending further study.
“All four Lower Mekong countries are still on the same page; that is, that the project needs more study on its impact, [as do] all projects on Mekong River,” Surasack Glahan, a communications officer at the MRC secretariat in Vientiane, Laos, told RFA.
Opponents of the project are concerned that the dam, which would block fish migration on Southeast Asia’s main waterway, could not only impact the lives of millions in the region who rely on the river for their food and their livelihoods, but also pave the way for other hydropower projects on the river.
At least 11 other dams have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.
Six of them are in Laos, which, with over 70 hydropower dams in total planned on its rivers, has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.