Laos announced Thursday that it will submit the proposed Don Sahong dam on the Mekong River for "prior consultation" within a regional mechanism but will not suspend development of the controversial project that has been criticized by its neighbors and environmentalists.
Previously, Laos has refused to comply with a requirement under the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which supervises development along Southeast Asia's artery, that it should submit the project for scrutiny among member nations.
It only agreed to notify members of the progress of the dam, the second to be constructed by the landlocked nation on the Mekong.
But Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong told a MRC meeting in Bangkok among members Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam that his country is committed to switching from the "notification" to "prior consultation" process for the Don Sahong dam development.
Viraphonh said Laos would share with the MRC all details of the project in a bid to formalize any exchange of ideas, pledging to work openly and closely with member countries and development partners.
"Today we inform you that, in keeping with the unique spirit of cooperation embodied in that Agreement [which led to the formation of the MRC], and in acknowledgment of your continuing concerns, the Lao PDR will undertake the formal Process for prior consultation for the Don Sahong Hydropower Project," he declared.
"The change from notification to prior consultation means that everything we have put on the table will be put on the record," Viraphonh said. "Going forward, the prior consultation process will formalize our exchange of ideas, and further demonstrate the Lao PDR’s pledge to work openly and in close cooperation with member countries and development partners."
In the same breath, though, he told the other MRC nations that work on the project would continue.
"[With your support and constructive input, the Lao Government will continue to develop the project in a responsible and sustainable manner,” he said.
Joint committee to be set up
MRC Chief Executive Officer Hans Guttman told reporters that once Laos makes a request under the prior consultation process, "we will establish a joint committee working group to follow up on these issues and where those potential changes to the implementation schedule may be discussed also."
But he acknowledged that there is no need to suspend or stop the project during the process under the MRC's regulations.
Environmental groups say assessment of the project under the prior consultation process would require a transboundary impact assessment and debate among member countries.
International Rivers, a global green group that has been closely monitoring the dam project, said while Laos has "finally stepped up to their responsibility" under the regional mechanism and international law by submitting the Don Sahong Dam for prior consultation, it seems to be pushing ahead with it without regard for the views of its neighbors.
"[W]e note with great concern that it appears Laos intends to continue to develop the dam as planned, rather than use the prior consultation process as an opportunity for neighboring countries to have a voice in whether or not the project is built," International Rivers Southeast Asia Program Director Ame Trandem said in a statement.
Citing Viraphonh's statement, she said the Lao government should "stop all construction at the site of the Don Sahong Dam and cooperate in good faith to allow for a true assessment of the project under the prior consultation process, which must include a transboundary impact assessment and meaningful consultation."
She said the MRC’s prior consultation procedures had failed to ensure "fair and transparent" deliberations on the Xayaburi dam project, the first dam that Laos has begun building over objections neighboring countries.
Regional security threat
The Don Sahong project poses a regional security threat for the some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the river for their nutrition and their livelihoods, International Rivers says.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said in a report ahead of the MRC talks that the regional agency must “prevent unilateral interests from shattering regional cooperation and joint management of one of the world’s great rivers.”
It said time is running out to halt the two controversial dams, which could do “irreversible damage” to food security and critically endangered river dolphins.
The Don Sahong dam will be built at the downstream end of the Hou Sahong channel, which runs about five kilometers (about three miles) between the major islands of Don Sahong and Don Sadam.
The dam threatens the Mekong’s critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and will block the only channel available for dry-season fish migration, putting the world’s largest inland fishery at risk, WWF said.
To date, close to 150,000 people have signed WWF’s petition calling on the Malaysian dam builder, Mega First, to pull out of the project.
Construction of the Don Sahong dam is scheduled to begin later this year, but infrastructure work has been going on for some time.
A site visit early this month by International Rivers confirmed that workers have begun construction of a bridge connecting the mainland to Don Sadam Island.
The bridge will create an access route for construction on the Hou Sahong Channel, it said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.