The energy minister of Laos has rejected reports that Vietnam and Cambodia are against the construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River, stressing that the hydropower project will not be shelved.
Minister Soulivong Daravong also said that Laos will sell power generated from the dam to Cambodia in addition to Thailand, where a lawsuit was filed last month to stop any electricity purchase from Xayaburi citing environment and other concerns.
His remarks to reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh on Wednesday adds to confusion over the status of the U.S. $3.5 billion project, the first of 11 proposed dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong River.
Two months ago, Lao Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith announced at an ASEAN ministerial meeting that the dam project has been put off pending further studies, earning praise from many delegates.
At the same time, the official media in Vientiane gave a different story, saying the government will continue to allow developer Ch. Karnchang, a Thai company, to proceed with "scheduled" activities at the construction site, including the resettlement of affected villagers.
Independent groups who visited the project site also confirmed that construction work is indeed continuing.
Following subsequent statements by Lao officials, it was assumed by many that Laos has allowed the developer to begin initial construction pending further studies on the sustainability of the project.
Daravong’s remarks this week that Cambodia and Vietnam were not opposed to the project contradict previous statements by the two countries, which have jointly urged Laos to suspend the dam.
Te Navuth, secretary general of Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee, said in July that the two countries have asked Laos to allow more time for a comprehensive review of the dam.
“Its aim is to require Laos to extend the consultation time for the dam and wait for the results of research that show the dam’s [potential] impact on the mainstream Mekong River,” he said.
In April, Lim Kean Hor, Cambodia’s water resources minister, also demanded in a letter to his Lao counterpart Noulinh Sinbandhit that construction on the dam be suspended pending an environmental impact assessment.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia's main waterway, had ruled that the dam project should not proceed until further assessment was conducted.
The decision followed an earlier recommendation by an expert study group for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
Minister Daravong denied that Cambodia and Vietnam are calling for a halt of the dam, saying that reports of their objections were simply not true.
The minister insists that the dam will be able to produce safe and clean energy and that it will not have any adverse environmental impact on neighboring countries.
Preparations for construction of the dam, including clearing the riverbank, have already begun, though the work is currently on hold due to the start of the rainy season, he said.
Environmental groups in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam have staged protests against the Xayaburi dam, saying it is likely to damage the Mekong ecosystem and fisheries and the food security of the people downstream.
Last month, a group of Thai villagers opposed to the dam submitted a lawsuit against five Thai government agencies, saying the government should not have agreed to purchase electricity from the dam without further study.
The project is being financed by a consortium of Thai banks.
Laos, which hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors, has over 70 dams planned on its rivers.
Reported by Wath Symoun and Max Avary for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.