Southeast Asian states have sought greater scrutiny of a plan by Laos to build the first dam on the lower Mekong River following concerns expressed by Vietnam and environmental groups.
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the lower Mekong basin countries, decided at a weekend meeting to delay a decision on the controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam project.
The four countries are members of the Mekong River Commission, which made the decision after a three-day meeting that ended on Saturday.
The commission, an advisory body formed in 1995 to promote sustainable development along the Mekong system, had last year called for a 10-year freeze on the construction of hydropower dams along the river, the region's main artery.
But landlocked Laos pressed for approval of the project, saying it has met the legal, environmental, and social requirements for constructing the dam.
“The member countries feel that more time is needed and more information should be considered before discussing [the matter] at the next meeting, to be held in Vientiane in April,” a commission member said in an interview.
April 22 deadline
The commission said in a statement that as the April 22 deadline for reaching a decision on the project approached, the four countries "have agreed to convene a special session on the prior consultation process" for the project "before determining how they should proceed with the proposal."
The new talks have been scheduled for April 21.
The countries linked to the project have conducted national consultations with related stakeholders, including potentially affected communities, to gauge their views and perspectives on the project, the commission said.
The commission's secretariat has also deployed a team of experts in several sectors including fisheries, sediment, and dam safety design to review project documents, including an environmental impact assessment submitted by the Lao government.
The Xayaburi project, which will cost U.S. $3.5 billion and take eight years to complete, would be the first project on the lower end of the Mekong River and downstream of China. It would be capable of generating 1,260 megawatts of electricity, mainly for export to Thailand.
Upstream, the river's flow from its headwaters in the Tibetan plateau through southern China has been harnessed by four dams in China's Yunnan province. They are part of a cascade of eight mega-dams the Asian giant plans to build.
The Lao dam is to be located about 150 kilometers (93 miles) downstream of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It will be developed by Ch. Karnchang Public Co. Ltd. of Thailand.
Vietnam objected to the project on the grounds that it could adversely impact fisheries and soil in its southern delta where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea.
Green groups against project
Just before the meeting, a group of 263 nongovernmental organizations from 51 countries called on Laos to cancel the project and urged Thailand to abandon plans to buy electricity from the hydropower plant.
"The Thai government considers dams as a type of project that can be harmful to the environment, so how can the Xayaburi Dam be built without questioning and fully understanding how it will impact millions of people basin-wide?" said Chanida Chanyapate Bamford of Focus on the Global South.
Since 2009, tens of thousands of people have submitted petitions and letters to the region's prime ministers and to the Mekong River Commission, calling for the Mekong River to remain free-flowing and for Thailand not to purchase electricity from the dam.
Chhit Sam Arth, head of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, urged the Mekong River Commission to consider the concerns and suggestions of civil society at the April meeting.
"We appeal for a thorough and thoughtful study before making a decision on building the hydropower dam along the Mekong River," he said.
Reported by Max Avary of RFA's Lao service and RFA's Khmer service. Translation by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.