Laos said Tuesday it will defer a decision to construct a controversial dam on the lower Mekong River after the plan met with opposition from neighboring countries who share the river’s resources.
Critics say the U.S. $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam would destroy the river’s ecology and disrupt the livelihood of riparian communities that rely on it for their livelihood.
They also fear that proceeding with the Xayaburi dam would give a green light to construction on as many as 10 other hydropower projects planned for the lower Mekong.
At a meeting held Tuesday in the Lao capital Vientiane, officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam issued a joint statement which said there was "still a difference in views" and the issue should be handled at ministerial level. A meeting is expected later this year.
Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam said additional studies would be required to determine the potential impact of the Xayaburi dam.
On Monday, representatives of riparian communities in eight northeastern Thai provinces along the Mekong River gathered in protest at the Bangkok headquarters of CH. Karnchang, the Thai construction company which won the bid to build the U.S. $3.5 billion dam.
CH. Karnchang, which is also a project partner, has already begun to build roads on the dam site, despite the decision to put construction on hold.
One representative, who did not provide his name, said the dam would bring trouble to the entire region.
“But no one, not a single person, will take responsibility for projects like this, especially for the Xayaburi in Laos,” he said.
“The Lao population has voiced its concern to us that the dam will make problems for them—forcing them to relocate and find a new way to make their living.”
Another representative from the Xien Khane district of Thailand’s Loei province said downstream communities like his would be extremely hard hit by the dam.
“We are 200 kilometers (125 miles) downstream from the proposed site. All of us in the riparian districts of Loei province are farmers,” the representative said.
“During the dry season, we rely on the Mekong’s water to grow vegetables. Now, drought will set in and we won’t be able to grow anything,” he said.
“Without water we have no life. We can live without electricity.”
‘Battery of Asia’
With plans to build a total of 70 hydropower projects, Laos hopes to become “the battery” of Asia, and Thailand has already pledged to purchase 95 percent of the electricity which will be produced at the 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi dam.
The Lao government has said that the dam would not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream.
But the landlocked country, which hopes to kick-start its economy by harnessing the river, is facing increasing criticism over how the projects will affect the environment and its downstream neighbors.
The state media in Vietnam, Laos’ communist ally, has been particularly critical of the Xayaburi dam. Farmers in the country say the dam will decrease outflow in the Mekong delta, causing salt water from the sea to creep further into the region’s farmland and destroy crops.
Vietnam has urged a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams on the river.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an influential intergovernmental panel, released a report in March which found that the dam would curtail the migration of anywhere from 23 to 100 species of fish. It described as “ineffective” a device proposed by CH. Karnchang to allow fish to bypass the structure.
The report also said that “under proposed operating conditions, the reservoir would effectively lose about 60 percent of its capacity due to sedimentation after 30 years,” putting the long-term ability of the dam to produce electricity in question.
Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam are all members of the MRC.
Activists, scientists, and officials outside of Laos say the dam would cause irreversible environmental damage, force the resettlement of 2,100 people and impact millions of others.
Last week, U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, called the dam "a dangerously harmful precedent as it relates to the environmental health of Southeast Asia."
Under an earlier agreement, Laos can proceed with the project without the approval of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, but the decision to hold off on construction may stem from the nation’s hope of gaining the support of its neighbors, all of whom are major trading partners.
China has dammed much of the upper Mekong, but few structures obstruct the rest of the 3,000-mile (4,900-kilometer) river as it continues its course through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.