Mekong Countries at Odds Over Xayaburi Dam

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.

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