During the 19th Mekong River Commission Council meeting last week in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and other participants challenged Laos’ efforts to construct the controversial $3.5 billion USD Xayaburi Dam, the first of a planned 11 dams along the Lower Mekong River.
The communist Laotian government began construction with a groundbreaking ceremony on November 7 in honor of the 95th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
The project had been on hold for almost 12 months; the Laotian government originally agreed to commission’s demands that construction be delayed until further environmental impact assessments were completed.
Laos and Ch Karnchang Plc, a leading infrastructure developer in Thailand and the main contractor on the Xayaburi Dam, spent an additional $100 million USD to revamp designs based on the assessment’s findings.
This redesign satisfied all parties, according to Lao Deputy Energy and Mines Minister Viraphonh Viravong, and Thailand quickly came out in support of beginning construction.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Vientiane, Laos on November 6, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichachaikul said: ''The Thai government is not opposed to the project.”
He added: “The Lao government has already conducted studies that show there would be no impact on the environment and fisheries.”
However, during the meeting last week, the Cambodian delegation said Laos misinterpreted the Mekong Agreement and that prior consultation had not been properly completed.
Vietnam, whose government went on record as saying the design changes implemented by Laos would mitigate any negative downstream impacts in November, called for construction works at the dam to be halted during the meeting.
They want no further development along the main stem of the river until the dam study agreed upon at last year’s council meeting is complete.
Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment said, “launching of the first mainstream hydropower project recently in the Lower Mekong Basin is causing concerns of the governments of the riparian countries in the region and the international community about its adverse impacts on downstream areas. While we are still trying to do the research to understand its impacts, each riparian country should show their responsibility by assuring that any future development and management of water resources proposed in the basin should be considered with due care and full precaution based on best scientific understanding of the potential impacts.”
The Mekong River Commission’s Development Partners and donor governments supplied the meeting with a joint statement calling for consensus among the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam on future Mekong dams because of potential trans-boundary impacts.
“It is our consensus that building dams on the mainstream of the Mekong may irrevocably change the river and hence constitute a challenge for food security, sustainable development, and biodiversity conservation,” the statement said.
Representatives from the Mekong River Commission countries and the Development Partners visited the site of the Xayaburi Dam on January 18.