Laos’s neighbors have demanded further research on the environmental impact of the controversial Xayaburi megadam that Vientiane officially broke ground on this week despite objections from environmental organizations.
Cambodia and Vietnam had earlier cautioned Laos against going ahead with the Mekong River project but after Laos publicly launched construction on the U.S. $3.5 billion hydropower dam on Wednesday, they seemed to have toned down their criticism.
The two countries are now calling for further study on the dam’s effects on the environment, as green groups slam Laos for disregarding warnings that the project could threaten the region’s environment and food security.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry urged Laos to improve the dam’s design while a Cambodian government panel monitoring the Mekong River said it was holding Laos to previous agreements to conduct further study on the project.
The two downstream countries had previously expressed objections to the dam—which will be the first across the main stem of the Lower Mekong, Southeast Asia’s main waterway—on the grounds that it could pose environmental risks for downstream communities.
Vietnam hopes Laos will continue research on the environmental impacts of the Xayaburi dam, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said Thursday, according to the official Vietnam News Agency.
He said Laos had started building the dam "after adjusting the project design to mitigate the impact on the downstream” by allowing for greater sediment flow and fish migration, the Associated Press reported.
But he also urged Laos to further perfect the dam’s design, the Vietnam News Agency said.
He said Laos should cooperate with its neighbors in studying cumulative impacts caused by possible future hydropower plants on the Mekong River on the regional environment, economy, and society, it added.
The dam is subject to a non-binding regional review process through the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam that manages development along the key waterway.
Laos had earlier suspended construction of the dam after the commission ruled that the impact of hydropower projects on the river needed careful study.
Sin Niny, vice-chairman of Cambodia’s national MRC body, told reporters this week that in line with last year’s agreement, Cambodia is continuing to work with a technical group to invite Japanese experts to conduct environmental studies of the dam project.
Laos had gone ahead without informing Cambodia about the decision to officially begin construction, Sin Niny said, adding that he had heard about plans for the public launch from news reports.
The day before the groundbreaking ceremony, it remained unclear how much Laos had consulted its neighbors about moving forward with construction, he said.
“Until now we don’t know whether the MRC governments have discussed the dam project,” he said Tuesday.
Lao officials insist they have addressed Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s objections to the dam, saying revisions to the dam’s design have been implemented to improve the project.
Asked whether neighbors had complained about the official start of construction, Laos’s Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Virapong said their concerns had been addressed.
"The ambassadors of Vietnam and Cambodia were there at the ceremony yesterday," he told Agence France-Presse Thursday.
Environmental groups say the dam will block fish migration and sediment flow, affecting the millions of people in Southeast Asia who rely on the river’s ecosystem for their food and livelihoods.
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.
Thai senators spoke out against the dam on Thursday, saying construction should be suspended for at least a decade pending further scientific studies.
At a press conference on the dam in Bangkok on Thursday, Senator Surajit Chirawate, a member of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, said the dam’s transboundary impact was a major concern.
“Yes, the location it is being built is in Laos … and it’s far away from Thailand, about 100 kilometers (60 miles). But who will be responsible for the transboundary impact?”
Senator Prasan Marukpitak, the head of an environment subcommittee, said Laos’s decision to move ahead with construction on the dam was an act of “sabotage.”
"The lives of 60 million people will be wrecked and catastrophically destroyed. It is an act of sabotage to the Mekong River which is the nature's treasure,” he said.
The dam has prompted opposition from villagers in riparian communities in Thailand, who have has filed a suit against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Thai Cabinet, and three other state entities.
They are arguing that the Thai government should not have allowed EGAT to sign an agreement with Laos’s Xayaburi Power Co. for purchasing electricity from the dam before assessing the dam's environmental impact.
In Cambodia, the 3S Rivers Protection Network appealed to the government on Thursday to file further formal complaint to the international community against the Lao government over the dam.
The group’s director Meach Mean said that if Laos continues to build the dam, it will be breaching previous agreements made through the MRC.
Critics fear the Xayaburi project will pave the way for nearly a dozen other dams that have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.
Reported by RFA’s Lao, Khmer, and Vietnamese services. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.