Mekong River Commission Says Governments Must Decide Fate of Lao Don Sahong Dam

By Joshua Lipes
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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.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body that supervises development along Southeast Asia’s main waterway, said Friday that the fate of the controversial Don Sahong dam project in Laos must be decided by the governments of its four regional member states.

The issue had already been deferred to the MRC Council—consisting of water and environment ministers from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam—after a special session on Jan. 28, when the MRC Joint Committee was unable to reach an agreement on the project, the commission said in a statement.

“After further deliberations the MRC Council announced that there are still differing views among the countries on whether the prior consultation process should come to an end, and that the matter must now be referred to their respective governments for resolution,” the statement said.

At the special meeting in January, the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam had expressed concern that the potential impacts of the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam—the second dam proposed for construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream—remained unclear and requested more time to collect additional data.

The government of Laos had proposed bringing the prior consultation process to a close, saying it had considered and addressed the “legitimate” concerns of the other member countries, and expressed its commitment to ensuring the sustainable development of the project.

The MRC on Friday pointed to a clause in the 1995 Mekong Agreement, signed by the four nations, which stipulates that in the event that the commission is unable to resolve a dispute, the issue shall be referred to the governments for “negotiation through their diplomatic channels.”

If necessary, the MRC said, the governments can “resort to mediation by mutual agreement according to the principles of international law.”

The governments can communicate any decision to the MRC Council for further proceedings, if necessary, to carry out such decision, it added.

Call for discussion

The MRC’s statement came a day after environmental watchdog International Rivers called on the commission to address regional concerns over the Don Sahong dam at its annual consultation meeting scheduled for June 22 in the Lao capital Vientiane.

International Rivers said the MRC had failed to answer questions about the dam and should “break their silence regarding next steps for the regional decision-making process [for the project] … to ensure that the concerns of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are not swept under the rug.”

It urged the MRC Council to hold a special meeting to discuss the project, which it has not done since the January talks broke down, and noted there had been no indication that studies requested by the three countries—which, like Laos, all border the Mekong—were being carried out.

Meanwhile, construction at the dam site has continued, and Malaysian project developer MegaFirst Corporation Berhad has been in ongoing negotiations with China’s Sinohydro International Corporation over the contracts for the project.

The National Assembly, or parliament, of Laos re-opened for sessions on June 7, and International Rivers said approval of the Don Sahong dam’s concession agreement was expected to have been on the agenda for discussion.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, said Laos “appears intent on taking advantage of the lack of action by the MRC” to push ahead with the project and called on the Lao government to “immediately halt all construction” on the dam, as the prior consultation process remains unresolved.

Prior consultation

The Don Sahong dam is the second to undergo process of prior consultation following the September 2010 prior consultation for the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi Hydropower Project located on the Mekong mainstream in Laos.

In March, the Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said it believed that the Xayaburi project would be “one of the world’s most potentially destructive dams because of the serious impact it will have on fisheries for tens of millions of people.”

The group added that the project would reduce sediment transit and permanently change the shape of the Mekong River channel.

Conservation groups also have urged the Lao government to postpone the construction of the Don Sahong dam, arguing that it will block migratory fish routes, destroy endangered ecosystems, and threaten nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.


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