A Cambodian coalition of NGOs dedicated to raising public awareness about the risks associated with dams on the Mekong River said Thursday that it will boycott a regional stakeholder forum for two proposed hydropower projects in Laos because its concerns were ignored by the organizing body.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC)—a regional body established by Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to cooperate on development of the key waterway—is holding the Sept. 20-21 forum to “share information on the Pak Lay project” as well as “updates and discussions on a joint action plan for the Pak Beng hydropower project” and other topics on an agenda that “highly involves stakeholders’ interest.”
The MRC has said it will support “open and inclusive participation from stakeholders from communities, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, academia, and the private sector” at the gathering in the Lao capital Vientiane.
On Thursday, the Cambodia Mekong Alliance (CMA) consisting of 52 NGOs, said it will not take part in the forum after its request to convey concerns over the potential impacts of the Pak Lay and Pak Beng dams on the Mekong River in Laos to the MRC’s representative body in Cambodia was ignored.
CMA representative Leang Bunleap told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Cambodia Mekong Commission’s failure to respond to his coalition’s request shows that the MRC only pays lip service to creating an all-inclusive consultative process on dam development.
“There was no response to our request,” he said.
“The forum will be held and the planned construction [on the Pak Lay and Pak Beng dams] will proceed anyway, so we decided not to take part in the forum.”
The CMA and other groups have warned that the Pak Lay, Pak Beng, and other dams in Laos will negatively impact the environment and the livelihood of river communities throughout the region.
The CMA’s decision not to attend the forum comes weeks after the Save the Mekong coalition of NGOs and community-based groups said it will boycott the prior consultation process for the Pak Lay dam, noting that “serious and outstanding concerns regarding each of the mainstream dams that have undergone the process to date—the Xayaburi, Don Sahong, and Pak Beng dams—remain unresolved.”
The group said that requests for information about the projects’ impact expressed during their prior consultations were not formally addressed, including calls for the extension of the consultation periods.
It also cited a seven-year study issued in February, indicating that a series of dams on the Mekong’s mainstream and tributaries poses threats to the region’s ecological health, economic vitality, and food security.
Prior consultation is a required procedure under the 1995 Mekong Agreement by Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to establish the MRC. It allows member nations to jointly review proposed dam projects on the Mekong mainstream with the aim of reaching an agreement on whether the project should proceed and under what conditions.
The MRC’s Joint Committee Working Group decided to begin a six-month prior consultation process for the Pak Lay dam on Aug. 8—a day after the Lao government announced a suspension of new dam projects and independent investigations of existing ones, following the collapse of an auxiliary dam at the U.S. $1 billion Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower project in Champasak province.
The July 23 disaster caused severe flooding that claimed the lives of at least 40 villagers, according to official figures, and displaced thousands of others who are living in temporary camps.
Concerns over Lao dams
Phoy Vanna, a villager who lives near Cambodia’s border with Laos in Stung Treng province, told RFA Thursday that he was concerned about the potential impact from the Don Sahong dam, which is now about 60 percent complete.
“I am so worried that something like what happened with the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam could occur,” he said of the Don Sahong, which is located about one mile from the border in Laos.
“If there is a dam collapse, there will be a significant impact and I demand that [the authorities take] full responsibility if that happens.”
A villager from Sieng Pang district’s Sekong commune in Stung Treng, who was affected by flooding from the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam collapse, told RFA on condition of anonymity that residents “have no confidence” in local authorities to discuss compensation for damages with the Lao government.
“I have received no assistance,” the villager said, adding that “victims are going hungry and their rice crops remain under water.”
Despite a recent order by the Lao government to halt new dam investments, the developers of the Pak Lay and Pak Beng hydropower projects told RFA last month that they are pressing ahead with construction plans because they have not been ordered by provincial authorities to stop their work.
A series of 11 large hydropower dams on the Mekong’s lower mainstream and roughly 120 tributary dams are planned for 2040. The 770-megawatt Pak Lay hydropower project in northwestern Laos’ Xayaburi province would be the fourth dam on the lower Mekong mainstream, after the Xayburi, Don Sahong, and Pak Beng dams.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.