Mekong River Commission to Meet on Controversial Lao Dam

laos-siphandone-fisherman-nov-2013.jpg A fisherman catches fish on a channel west of the Khone Phapheng falls near the future Don Sahong dam site on the Mekong River, Nov. 10, 2013.

An international body which oversees development on the Mekong River will hold a special meeting this week to evaluate the impact of the controversial Don Sahong dam proposed by Laos for construction on the river’s mainstream, an official said Tuesday.

The discussion will be held in the Lao capital Vientiane on Thursday by the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) Joint Committee, made up of representatives from member nations Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, MRC spokesperson Surasak Glahan told RFA’s Lao Service.

“All four countries will discuss what the next step in the Don Sahong project will be because three countries—Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand—had earlier requested that the project first pass a consultation process before Laos notified [MRC] member countries that it would proceed.”

Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand—which share borders with Laos on the Lower Mekong—have voiced objections to Vientiane’s September announcement to the MRC that it would proceed with construction on the 260-megawatt hydropower project without taking into consideration the concerns of its neighbors.

According to MRC policy, any plans made for development on the Mekong mainstream must be submitted for prior consultation, though recommendations are not considered binding.

In addition to formal complaints to the government of Laos by its fellow MRC members demanding prior consultation on the dam, international donors to the joint body—including Australia, the EU, Japan, and the U.S.—have also called on Vientiane to hold interregional discussions before the project can proceed.

Glahan said that a joint agreement would be reached based on answers to questions from delegates representing all of the four member countries during Thursday’s meeting, following which details of the decision would be made public.

He said that the MRC has sent all of the data it has collected about the proposed project to dam builder Mega First Berhad of Malaysia, which will use it during further development of the site.

The project has also faced mounting criticism from environmental watchdogs, nongovernmental organizations, and local communities who say it will disrupt fish migration on the Mekong and threaten regional food security.

Critics say the dam, located near the iconic Khone Falls area of southern Laos, will block the only section of the Mekong River where fish can pass in large numbers during the dry season.

Lao officials and experts working on the dam have claimed that much of the criticism of the project stems from misinformation and outdated reports.

Second Mekong dam

Laos has said it wants to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling electricity to its neighbors, prioritizing hydropower as a key way to promote economic growth and alleviate poverty.

But environmental groups have raised concerns that the strategy is risky and that the projects often fail to protect local people’s access to the water resources they depend on.

Green groups such as International Rivers also have hit out at Laos for plowing ahead with construction on the Xayaburi dam, the first across the mainstream of the Lower Mekong River, without adequate study of its environmental impact.

The dam, along with the Don Sahong, poses a regional security threat for the some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the Mekong for their nutrition and their livelihoods, environmental and conservation groups say.

Once completed in 2018, the U.S. $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam, located in northern Laos, will generate electricity mostly for export to Thailand.

Laos has a total of over 70 dams under construction or in the planning or consideration stages, many of them on waters flowing into the Mekong.

According to Thailand’s Manager Online, a total of 23 dams were completed in Laos by the end of 2013 and 10 more were under construction that are expected to be finished this year.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Moaungkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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