U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday (10th July) pressed the Laotian government to carry out more studies on the controversial Xayaburi Dam project on the Mekong River.
She was in Laos for a brief (4 hour) visit before traveling to Phnom Penh, Cambodia where she spoke this morning (11th July) to a U.S. - ASEAN ministerial conference, describing 6 pillars of American policy in the region: security cooperation, economic integration and trade, engagement in the Lower Mekong region, transnational threats, democratic development, and war legacies.
Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong has offered reassurances that the $3.6 billion USD hydropower project would not proceed without approval from neighboring countries, who have opposed the project on environmental grounds.
His government had already denied last week that it was pursuing construction of the dam, in contempt of a pledge to its Mekong neighbors.
In recent weeks, environmental activists have claimed Thai company Ch. Karnchang, the key developer of the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi Dam, was continuing to pursue the project, even though Laos had agreed back in December to postpone it.
Laos' deputy energy minister, Viraphonh Viravong, claimed the administration had kept its word, although he said it was carrying out geological sub-surface research in the Mekong Valley.
"We plan to invite development partners and Mekong River Commission member countries to visit the project site so they can see the actual development for themselves," Viraphonh told the Vientiane Times daily on July 11.
"The Xayaburi project will develop one of the most transparent and modern dams in the world," he said.
But environmental groups, locals living beside the river and some nearby countries object to the project because of what they claim is a shoddy ecological impact review.
Viraphonh said the state had then enlisted two independent advisers, who had told it to adjust the development blueprint for the mega construction project.
The adjustments would guarantee that 85 percent of fish could swim through the dam, in line with Mekong River Commission procedures, he added.
Vietnam, typically Laos's strongest ally, and Cambodia, have lobbied for the initiative to be halted to allow further consideration.
Last week, Cambodia's National Mekong River Commission stated that Laos had broken a 1995 accord requiring consultation before launching any Mekong ventures.
The Laos government’s contention that it has postponed construction contradict the findings of a survey conducted by conservation group International Rivers, which claims that Ch. Karnchang has pursued crucial resettlement and construction activities.
Recent action allegedly includes dredging to deepen and widen the dam site riverbed, erection of a concrete retaining wall and expansion of the company's local labor force.
"By proceeding with resettlement and construction on the Xayaburi Dam, Ch. Karnchang has blatantly defied the diplomatic process under way to decide on the future of the Mekong River," said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers.
A group of Thai riverside communities opposed to the dam announced they would launch a lawsuit on July 9 against the dam’s construction, after gathering signatures from hundreds of people who say the project will affect their livelihoods.
The Lower Mekong People’s Network in Chiang Rai in Thailand’s extreme north - has held a string of rallies and protest meetings in villages that expect to be negatively affected by construction and the impact of the dam itself.
The lawsuit claims the Thai government cut an agreement with Laos to buy electricity pumped out by the $3.5 billion USD dam on completion, without revealing the agreement’s details to the public, as Thai law demands.
The 1,260-megawatt dam would pipe almost all -- 95 per cent of its electricity -- to Thailand.
On June 29, some 200 Cambodian villagers staged a protest against the dam.