Faced with a monumental decision, the Mekong River Commission’s four member countries yesterday could not reach an agreement on Laos’ proposal to build the first hydropower dam on the lower Mekong river and postponed making a decision for six months.
At the meeting in Vientiane yesterday, representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam chose to refer a decision on the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam to the water resources ministers of the four countries in the MRC Council, the body’s highest decision-making organ, the MRC said.
MRC members decided that “the proposed Xayaburi hydropower project be tabled for consideration at the ministerial level, as they could not come to a common conclusion on how to proceed,” the MRC said in a news release.
“Lao PDR insists [the MRC decision] process is complete, while other lower Mekong countries raised concerns on impacts and gaps in technical knowledge and mitigation measures,” it said.
Under a 1995 agreement, MRC governments are required to agree jointly on any project affecting the mainstream Mekong. Laos proposed the Xayaburi dam in October and the MRC’s Joint Committee, which functions directly under the executive MRC Council, met yesterday to conclude a six-month decision-making process on the dam.
However, as the countries hit deadlock and Laos declined to extend the MRC decision-making process by another six months, the issue was sent to the MRC Council.
Speaking in his position as chair of the MRC Joint Committee, Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said, “Lao PDR thinks the six-month prior consultation process is now enough and could not see the need to extend the process.”
Mr Navuth said by telephone from Laos yesterday evening that the MRC Council’s four ministers were now to meet in October or November to discuss the proposal again.
An account of the meeting from the MRC seemed to indicate that Laos has become more isolated in its position on the dam.
Vietnam strongly opposed the Xayaburi dam and supported a 10-year deferment on any Mekong dam, while Cambodia said that knowledge gaps on the dam’s impact and design needed to be addressed before construction could start.
Perhaps surprisingly, Thailand, a project sponsor, also asked that more studies be conducted on the dam’s potential consequences and that river communities should be consulted more.
Before the meeting, downstream countries Vietnam and Cambodia seemed to be at odds with proponents Laos—which sees the dam as key to its development—and Thailand, which would fund the $3.5 billion project and buy its electricity.
Watt Botkosal, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said the postponement was a minor step forward for Cambodia, as it would create more time to study the Xayaburi dam’s effects before any decision is made.
“It’s good for Cambodia because if we do not understand [the impacts], well, how could decide?” he said.
Civil society groups also welcomed postponement of the decision, saying it would give MRC members time to take in all concerns over the Xayaburi dam’s impact and conclude to shelve the project altogether.
“[T]he Mekong river has gotten a much-needed but temporary reprieve,” Ame Trandem, Mekong coordinator for International Rivers, said in a news release.
“The Mekong river is a valuable shared resource, and the Xayaburi dam’s transboundary impacts require agreement between the region’s governments and the public,” she said.
“[W]e urge the region’s governments to acknowledge the widespread concern of the public and civil society groups and indefinitely cancel the Xayaburi dam.”
Tep Bunharith, director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association based Stung Treng City, said the postponement was a small step forward.
“The meeting shows that the countries accepted the impact of the dam on people who live along the river,” he said. “This is a tiny success…but we have yet to learn the final decision,” Mr Bunharith said.
NGOs from across the region have been campaigning against the Xayaburi project for months. They and many foreign donors, including the US and the World Bank, support an MRC study from November, which advised a 10-year deferral of any the 11 planned Mekong dams, as the projects would devastate fisheries and push millions of fishermen into poverty.