An intergovernmental body which supervises development along the Mekong River on Wednesday referred a decision on the much-criticized Don Sahong Dam in Laos to the ministerial level after Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam were unable to agree on how to proceed with the project.
The Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), whose members consist of the four nations, held a special session in the Lao capital Vientiane to discuss Prior Consultation for the 260-megawatt dam, during which Laos informed its neighbors that the process was complete.
Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, however, called for an extension of the process until further studies and additional consultation could be carried out on the controversial dam, being built by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) on Southeast Asia’s key artery the Mekong River, just two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of Cambodia.
“Based on the differing views of its members, the Joint Committee decided to refer the matter to the MRC Council, the highest MRC governance body which consists of water and environment ministers from the four Member Countries,” the MRC said in a statement following the meeting.
Lao authorities decided in June to open the dam to consultations among members of the MRC and regional public, and pledged to suspend construction of the project, though Mega First has said work is continuing on secondary infrastructure, including roads and bridges.
Global environmental group International Rivers on Wednesday welcomed the call from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to extend the process and urged Laos to shut down all construction on the Don Sahong.
“The requests made by Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to extend the prior consultation for the Don Sahong Dam is not unreasonable given the significant knowledge gaps that still exist and the high level of risk that the project’s proposed mitigation measures carry should they fail,” the group’s Southeast Asia program director Ame Trandem said in a statement.
“As cooperation is a two-way process, Laos has the moral imperative to comply with neighboring requests. With the dispute between all four Mekong countries ongoing, it is absolutely essential that all construction activities are halted immediately and that staff and equipment are withdrawn from the site.”
According to International Rivers, the official July 25 start date for the consultation process was only decided upon by MRC members at the beginning of October when the process was nearly halfway over.
And concerns raised by a number of participants during a December public consultation meeting consisting of civil society, nongovernmental and governmental organizations, and regional and international organizations in Pakse appear to have been disregarded by Laos, including calls to scrap the project altogether.
The Don Sahong has sparked widespread concern among neighboring countries and environmentalists who say that it will block migratory fish routes, negatively affecting nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries, and destroy endangered ecosystems.
“In the case of the Don Sahong Dam, the risks to regional fisheries, to the Irrawaddy dolphins, and to the livelihoods and food security of millions of people go beyond the borders of Laos,” Trandem said.
“With such risks and high stakes for the Mekong, the Don Sahong Dam should not be built.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s Joint Committee session, environmental group Vietnam Rivers Network (VRN) released a statement which said that in an online survey it conducted from Nov. 13 to Jan. 15, only 26 out of 1,196 scientists and residents of the Mekong Delta supported construction of the Don Sahong.
Conducted in collaboration with the Green Innovation and Development Center and the Southwest Steering Committee, the survey also found that all respondents in the 13 provinces of Vietnam that surround the Mekong Delta were in opposition to the project.
It marked the first time residents of the Mekong Delta had participated in a survey on a project in Laos, and VRN said respondents were concerned the Don Sahong and other Mekong dams would deposit more alluvium in their fields and aquatic crops, in addition to causing landslides and seawater intrusion.
They proposed that the Vietnamese government work with the authorities of Laos to stop the construction of Don Sahong or delay it to allow time to deal with the challenges, as well as to find solutions to developing clean energy that could replace hydropower plants.
Despite the myriad concerns over the project, Daovieng Phonekeo, deputy director general of the Lao Department of Electricity, told RFA’s Lao Service last month that full-scale construction of the dam would begin shortly after the end of the consultation process.
Meanwhile, a network representing residents of eight Thai Mekong riparian provinces called on officials in Thailand’s capital Bangkok to protect their livelihoods as the U.S. $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam—the first project Laos is building on the Mekong—reached its halfway point of construction.
In a statement issued on Monday, the Thai People’s Network in Eight Mekong Provinces noted that Thailand has been one of the main drivers behind the dam, as it is building and financing it and planning to purchase the bulk of its electricity, but the project’s impact on the country has not been fully studied and plans to facilitate fish migration have not been made public.
It added that a lawsuit filed in a Thai court by local villagers remains pending which alleges that a power purchase agreement signed between the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Xayaburi electricity generating company in Laos is illegal, approved without an assessment of the project’s environmental and health impacts and without consultations in Thailand.
A villager from northeastern Thailand’s Nongkhai province told RFA’s Lao Service that as construction has progressed on the Xayaburi, the flow of the Mekong has become irregular and is seriously affecting the lives of riparian residents.
“These days, the water is so murky that fishermen rarely catch fish, while the rapid decrease of water levels and quality is affecting our pumps,” the villager said, adding that residents fear farming the lower banks of the Mekong because they believe the river will flood in the dry season, as it did last year.
“If the Xayaburi Dam begins generating power, the farmers will surely be impacted.”
Laos challenged the Prior Consultation process in late 2012 when it went ahead with the Xayaburi, despite protests from Vietnam and Cambodia over unresolved questions about its transboundary impact on important catch fisheries and sediment flow.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.