Updated 3:00 p.m. EST on 2012-05-10
A four-nation commission which manages development along Southeast Asia’s Mekong River asserted Tuesday that Laos must not proceed with construction of a controversial dam on the regional artery.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) countries agreed that construction on the Xayaburi dam must be suspended, a spokesman from the regional body said Tuesday, amid concerns among green groups that the hydropower project could wreck the environment.
Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam acknowledge that the Xayaburi project needs further study before it can be built, spokesman Surasack Glahan said, reiterating an earlier agreement among the four in December.
“All four Lower Mekong countries are still on the same page; that is, that the project needs more study on its impact, [as do] all projects on Mekong River,” Surasack Glahan, a communications officer at the MRC secretariat in Vientiane, Laos, said Tuesday.
He added that the MRC members are consulting with one another on how to conduct the study on the environmental impact of the proposed dam, which would be the first on the mainstream part of the Lower Mekong River.
The spokesman’s comments came after Thai company Ch. Karnchang, having begun preliminary work around the project site in March, announced in April that it had signed a contract with Xayaburi Power Co. for building the dam, despite the MRC agreement to wait for the study.
Ch. Karnchang’s announcement prompted protests from civil society groups in Thailand, where 95 percent of the energy generated by the Xayaburi dam would be sent. The protesters demonstrated at the company’s headquarters last month and at an international MRC conference in Phuket, Thailand last week.
Cambodia has also expressed opposition to the dam, lodging its complaint in a letter to Lao MRC representatives last week.
Through the MRC, established in 1995, the four Mekong countries have agreed to a protocol for consulting with and notifying each other about use of the river’s resources. But the organization has no binding jurisdiction, leaving open the possibility that Laos could move ahead on the dam without regional agreement.
The Lao government has given few official statements on the status of the project or its future.
Last week, Laos’s Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said at an international MRC conference in Thailand that Laos had already consulted with its neighbors and no more study was necessary.
"Laos has complied with the regulations and taken all concerns made by member countries into account and found the project caused no serious damage to the river and environment," Thailand’s The Nation newspaper quoted the minister as saying.
"We will address and take into account all reasonable concerns in order to make this Xayaburi dam a transparent dam and a role model for other dams in the mainstream of the Mekong River," he said, according to the newspaper.
Opponents of the project 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.
Six of them are in Laos, which, with over 70 hydropower dams in total planned on its rivers, has said it hopes to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia.
Reported by RFA's Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.