Xayaburi dam stirs debate on Mekong River Commission

BANGKOK - When ministers from the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission and donors meet in Luang Prabang, Laos this week, the future role of the agency will be on the table.

  • Published: 13/01/2013 at 01:38 PM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

Questions about the effectiveness of the Mekong River Commission, set up in 1995 to jointly manage sustainable development, have been raised by Laos' decision in November to go ahead with the US$3.5-billion (105 billion baht) Xayaburi dam project.

The decision came despite concerns among member governments, environmental groups and donors about the dam's downstream impact on fish migration and sedimentation flows, which could affect about two million people dependent on the river for their livelihoods.

At the commission's last ministerial meeting in December 2011, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam called for a delay to allow further studies on the environmental impact of the dam, the first to be built on the Lower Mekong. China has built four dams on the upper portions of the river already.

Ten more dams are planned on the Lower Mekong, mostly in Laos.

Laos insists that it has fulfilled the commission's consultation requirements.

"We agreed to do a comprehensive study on the project which may take 10 years, because it is related to many things. It was never just related to Xayaburi," said Viraphonh Viravong, vice minister of energy and mines.

The joint venture between the Lao government and Thai companies also redesigned the dam's fish ladder and sluice gates for sediment flows, completing its perceived obligations to the commission.

Laos has always argued the 40-metre high dam is a run-of-river design, which will have minimum impact on water flow.

Cambodia and Vietnam, two downstream countries that stand to suffer the most from the dam, have tempered their reaction to Xayaburi.

"We wish Laos would continue its study on environmental impacts and to work up the final design of Xayaburi dam, and work with Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand on the comprehensive, in-depth study on accumulative environmental and socio-economic impacts of all the hydropower projects in the Mekong River mainstream," the Vietnamese government said.

Cambodia has been similarly diplomatic.

"Laos decided to go forward with Xayaburi and has committed to continue carrying out additional studies," said Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee.

Neither country has requested that the Xayaburi issue be raised at the Mekong River Commission meeting scheduled this week.

Thailand, whose Ch Karnchang Public Co Ltd is the dam's major contractor and will be the major buyer of the electricity generated, has endorsed the project, to the dismay of some Thai activists.

"The post-war Lao alliances to Cambodia and Vietnam have been taken over by Thai and Chinese corporate interests," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator who has taken a lead in organising Thai opposition to the dam.

The governments now ruling Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were allies in the Indochina wars against the US military.

It is bad timing for Laos that the Luang Prabang meeting comes when the communist government is under international scrutiny for the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone, last seen being detained at a police checkpoint on Dec 15, 2012.

Sombath had spoken out at several public forums against the dam.

"The cost of this Xayaburi project to Laos's image is tremendous," Mr Kraisak said. "And the disappearance of Sombath has further eroded its credibility as a country that respects basic human rights."

Member countries may be reluctant to question the Xayaburi dam, but donors whose contributions account for the lion's share of the commission's budget are expected to raise objections.

"The main goal of the donor community is to reconfirm that the Mekong River Commission is the platform, the only multilateral architecture, responsible for managing the Mekong and we want to see a central role for it," said one Western diplomat. "We don't want to see it sidelined."

They are hoping that future decisions on hydropower projects will take into account the concerns of all parties.

"If decision-making continues to occur outside of the MRC, the institution will soon lose its legitimacy and 300 million dollars of international donor support to the commission will be wasted," said Jian-hua Meng, sustainable hydropower specialist at the World Wildlfie Fund.

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