Cambodia Lodges Dam Protest with Laos

The Xayaburi hydropower project on the Mekong River stirs up controversy among Laos's neighbors.
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Activists protest the construction of the Xayaburi Dam in front of the Lao Embassy in Bangkok, April 18, 2011.
Activists protest the construction of the Xayaburi Dam in front of the Lao Embassy in Bangkok, April 18, 2011.

Cambodia has called for an immediate halt to the construction of the Xayaburi dam in an official protest note to Laos, officials said in a statement released Tuesday, as opposition to the hydropower project gained momentum in Thailand.

Lim Kean Hor, Cambodia’s water resources minister and its representative to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body of four countries that share the river, demanded in a letter to his Lao counterpart Noulinh Sinbandhit that construction on the dam be suspended pending an environmental impact assessment.

“Cambodia’s position is that Laos should halt the dam construction while the environmental impact study is being carried out,” the Cambodian minister said in the April 24 statement, according to Cambodian online newspaper CEN.

He urged Laos to stick to commitments made at an MRC summit  in December, when member countries agreed in principle that further studies were needed on the impact of the dam before it could be built.

The letter comes weeks after Sin Niny, vice-chairman of Cambodia’s Mekong Committee, threatened that Cambodia could file a complaint against Laos in an international court if it allowed the dam —which would be the first mainstream dam on the Lower Mekong—to be built without regional consensus. 

Since the December agreement to suspend construction, the Thai company Ch. Karnchang announced it has signed contracts for the construction of the dam beginning March 15.

Through the MRC, established in 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam have agreed to a protocol for consulting with and notifying each other about use of Mekong resources, but the organization has no binding jurisdiction.

Thai protests

Meanwhile in Thailand, which will buy nearly all the power generated by the hydropower project, opposition to the dam has escalated, with representatives from the country’s riparian provinces holding a demonstration outside an MRC conference in Phuket on Tuesday.

About 30 protesters representing members of riparian communities in Thailand’s eight provinces along the Mekong gathered outside the MRC’s Mekong2Rio conference, an international gathering on transboundary water resources management.

The group’s protest followed larger demonstrations last week outside the Bangkok headquarters of Ch. Karnchang, which will be building the dam, and Thai banks providing loans to finance the project. 

The protesters are concerned that the dam, which would block fish migration on Southeast Asia’s main waterway, could not only impact the lives of millions in the region who rely on the river for their food and their livelihoods, but also pave the way for other hydropower projects on the river.

At least 11 other dams have been proposed on the mainstream Lower Mekong, in addition to five already built on the upper part of the river in China.

The protesters were allowed a brief meeting with the MRC’s chief executive officer Hans Guttman, who told them that only preliminary construction had begun around the Xayaburi site and that the commission would consider the concerns of local people, according to Thailand’s The Nation newspaper.

Power study

The day before the protests, representatives from more than 130 civil society groups issued a statement backing a report that proposes an alternative power plan for Thailand that excludes the Xayaburi dam.

The report, produced by Thai energy experts Chuenchom Sangasri Greacen and Chris Greacen, was presented to the country’s Energy Regulatory Commission on Friday and recommends Thailand seek sources of energy with environmental impact less damaging than that of the Xayaburi dam. 

The report, “Power Development Plan (PDP) 2012 and a Framework for Improving Accountability and Performance of Power Sector Planning,” criticizes the country’s plan for investing in energy infrastructure and recommends ways where energy use could be reduced.

“If we can invest in the know-how to manage energy consumption, in sustainable energy, and in production efficiency, not only will the price of electricity be lower,  but we can also avoid … importing energy from high-impact dams such as Xayaburi,” Chuenchom Sangasri Greacen told RFA.

She said that Thailand’s energy planning process is flawed and that the country should invest in efficiency measures and alternative energy instead.

“We have a better alternative,” she said.  “According to energy conservation policy, we should be investing more in the area of producing better electrical devices, or the standard of buildings instead of building new power plants, or building hydroelectric dams that create impacts to environment.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer and Lao services. Translations by Samean Yun and Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Comments (7)

Anonymous Reader

If anybody can tell Chinese to stop then tell Laos Gov. to stop. Cambodia put net on Mekong, and fish can not come up to upper Mekong, Laos didnt say anything, now just be quiet.

May 03, 2012 08:36 PM

Anonymous Reader

Good move Vietnam & Cambodia but don't forget the Corrupted Cambodian & Viet Gov also collude to build some damns in Mekong River in Cambodia. Why don't stop this project to save environment along this River?

May 02, 2012 08:47 PM

Anonymous Reader

In response to goodwill question I like to say that nobody can stop China to build the dams on the Mekong River within its territory and neither with Laos. I don’t think that Laos has signed any treaty of that kind that prevents itself to build the hydroelectric dams across the Mekong within its territory. The Mekong River Commission is an Intergovernmental Organization with consultative character unlike the Security Council of the United Nations where the 5 permanent members enjoy the right of veto. The resolutions and decisions adopted by it are of consultative nature so Laos might comply with and not up to its national interests.

May 02, 2012 06:45 PM

Anonymous Reader

The Dam itself isn't going to help the poor people in Laos, why build it? Stop the corruptions in the govt. is the key for development in Laos.

May 02, 2012 02:08 PM

Anonymous Reader

Cowboy, Please be aware that China is not permanently a member of MRC and, if I am not wrong, it has not signed any agreement on the Mekong river's national resources. Cambodia is small and weak to stop China, but a simple question is Are you able to?

May 02, 2012 11:19 AM

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