Tensions mounted on the final day of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) council meeting as Cambodia and Vietnam challenged Laos’ decision to move ahead with building the Xayaburi dam, according to minutes of the meeting obtained on Thursday.
Despite consistent protest from Cambodia and Vietnam about the dam’s impact on local fisheries and communities downstream, Laos began construction on the 1,285-megawatt hydropower dam in November.
During Thursday’s discussion in Luang Prabang on the Xayaburi dam—a process demanded in the 1995 Mekong Agreement—Lao Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong defended his country’s decision to move ahead with construction.
“After six months, all you can do is record the difference of opinions and that is the end of the process,” Mr. Viravong said, referring to the consultation process demanded by the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which provides a framework for how development on the mainstream river should be conducted. “We are committed to sustainable hydropower development,” he added.
Mr. Viravong also said that Laos did not agree to extend the consultation period—known as the PNPCA process—and that Laos was already “going beyond” what is specified in the Mekong Agreement.
However, Sin Niny, the permanent vice chairman of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee responded by saying that any construction work on the dam could only go ahead once a consensus between Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand had been made, as stipulated in the Mekong Agreement.
“It is clear, so please don’t say that after six months the PNPCA is completed. No, it is just six months for the Joint Committee to discuss and the Joint Committee can extend for as long as they want,” Mr. Niny said.
“I was one of the original negotiators for the formulation of the 1995 Agreement. So I want to inform you to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding,” Mr. Niny said.
Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Thai Lai also urged for more talks before a decision on the dam is taken.
“[E]ach 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,” he said in a statement.
A representative from Thailand, which is responsible for the dam’s construction and financing through its banks and Thai company Ch Karnchang, acknowledged that the MRC had encountered difficulties but did not want to “assign blame,” according to the minutes.
Environmental groups have charged that Laos has violated the Mekong Agreement by going forward with the Xayaburi dam without all the countries involved agreeing.
Donors to MRC countries— which include Australia, Finland, Belgium and the U.S., as well as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank—said that six months of consultation was too short.
“We recommend that all ambiguities regarding the application of the PNPCA be resolved before any future mainstream project proceeds,” the donors said in a joint statement.
“We encourage the government of Lao PDR…to officially inform the MRC Secretariat about the proposed changes to the design of the Xayaburi dam to make sure that legitimate concerns of the other MRC member states are taken into account,” the statement added.
Donors also expressed displeasure over the MRC’s decision not to invite environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to observe the meeting’s proceedings.
“In that context, we encourage the member countries to facilitate a transparent process that allows observers to hold official status.”
No explanation was provided to WWF about why they were not invited, said Marc Goichot, an expert on sustainable hydropower from WWF’s Greater Mekong program.
“We believe our [criticism] has always been science based and solution oriented,” Mr. Goichot said in an email. “[We are] saddened because WWF has dedicated a lot of time and resources over the past decade in supporting the MRC in its important and commendable objectives.”
Member countries and development partners will be able to visit the dam site today, a trip that will include a briefing by the project’s developers, MRC spokesman Surasak Glahan said in an email.
Kirk Herbertson, the Southeast Asia policy coordinator for environmental group International Rivers, praised Cambodia and Vietnam for their frank words to Laos, but said the real challenge now is to turn words into action.
“If this is not resolved, then the countries remain at high risk for making significant mistakes and allowing highly destructive projects to move forward,” Mr. Herbertson said.