More than 500 villagers held a march in eastern Cambodia Friday to protest a controversial dam project on the Mekong River in Laos they say is undergoing construction despite a pledge to halt progress while officials conduct a potential impact study.
The protest against the U.S. $3.8 billion Xayaburi Dam, in the capital city of Kompong Cham province, was led by monks and included students, activists, and staff from a number of nongovernmental organizations.
The group called on the leaders of the four Southeast Asian nations downstream from the dam—Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—to put an end to construction at the site, citing concerns that the project would negatively impact millions of people in the region and irreparably damage the environment.
The Venerable Sann Leang, executive director of NGO Environmental Development and an organizer of the march, said the villagers sought to raise awareness of the negative impacts of the dam, which he said would include the destruction of natural resources that riparian communities rely on to make a living.
“We are raising awareness for the people who live in Kompong Cham province near the Mekong River. We are seeking an intervention to halt the dam construction,” the monk said.
NGO Forum program officer Em Phallai said her organization was gathering thumbprints from the villagers on a petition it will send to the Thai government requesting it to stop buying electricity from Laos.
As of the beginning of this year, Laos had 14 operational hydropower dams, 10 under construction, and 56 proposed or in planning stages, according to an online government report. The Lao government has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.
The 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi Dam would provide 95 percent of its electricity to Thailand.
Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee Deputy Secretary General Koul Vathana said the Lao government needs to “respect its promise” to allow a Japanese firm to conduct an impact assessment before proceeding with construction.
Laos had committed to the study in December 2011 at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Indonesia after drawing criticism that its own environmental impact study was inadequate.
Kompong Cham city governor Thuch Phat said he is concerned about the impact of the dam on Cambodia, as the site lies only 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) across the border in Laos.
“We anticipate a negative impact on the people, environment, and fish population,” Thuch Phat told the crowd, adding that the dam would block water flow against 23 species of freshwater fish that traditionally migrate from the Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong River.
Soy Sot, an ethnic Laotian from northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, said he had attended the march to represent his community in Voeun Say district.
"If this project is allowed to continue it will bring disaster to my hometown,” he said.
“Since the building of the Yali Dam in Vietnam we have experienced serious flooding every year which has destroyed our livestock, rice crops, and property,” he said, referring to the country’s second largest dam, located about 70 kilometers (45 miles) upriver from the Cambodian border.
The Vietnamese government drew criticism over the Yali Dam for proceeding with the project in the 1990s without consulting the Cambodian government.
“Students cannot go to school during the rainy season due to flooding and we cannot bring food to the monks in the pagodas,” Soy Sot said.
On Wednesday, after investigating the site, environmental group International Rivers said that construction and resettlement activities on the Xayaburi Dam have been “significant” and contradict claims by Lao officials and the dam developer that only preliminary work has been done on the project.
As the first dam on the mainstream Lower Mekong, the Xayaburi Dam is also the first to undergo a controversial review process through the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a four-nation body that manages development along the river and has expressed reservations over the project.
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.
A member of a Thai NGO associated with International Rivers said that Ch. Karnchang, the Thai developer tasked with construction of the hydropower project, has already begun to build a dam wall where a village used to be. The NGO staff member said that the more than 330 residents from 65 villages had been resettled to a new area.
Other reports suggested that roads have been built alongside the Mekong River and land in the mountains has been flattened, and that construction of roads and workers’ shelters are as much as 40 percent complete.
Officials contacted by RFA at the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department refused to comment on the status of the dam.
In May, Sithong Chitgnothin, director of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department, told RFA construction on the dam had been halted.
Other Lao officials have said only preliminary construction, such as on roads around the site, is proceeding pending further studies by the MRC.
Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said that the dam may have to be redesigned to avoid adverse impact on the environment by allowing more river sediment to flow through the dam, a key concern for downstream countries whose agriculture depends on the river.
Controversy over the dam has flared since April, when Ch. Karnchang said it had signed a contract for the project’s construction, even though the MRC had recommended the project be postponed pending further study.
Environmental groups in Thailand have staged a series of protests against the company and a group of Thai banks lending the firm funds to proceed with construction.
The Chiang Rai-based Lower Mekong People’s Network, which represents communities from seven different provinces in Thailand along the Mekong River, plans to file a lawsuit against the company in July.
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer service and RFA's Lao service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.