The water and environment ministers of the four Mekong River Commission (MRC) countries are scheduled to meet in Siem Reap City today and tomorrow to reach a key decision on the future—some say the survival—of the Mekong River.
The ministers—from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—will try to reach agreement on whether or not Laos can build the first hydropower dam on the Lower Mekong, one of the last major free-flowing rivers in the world and a hugely productive ecosystem that is a source of food and income for tens of millions of people.
Laos’ plan to build the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam has pitted it against downstream countries, civil society groups and foreign donors, who are concerned about the dam’s environmental impact and also fear that its construction will increase the likelihood of other Mekong dams going ahead.
Talks with official sources yesterday indicated, however, that Laos’ chances of getting project approval at the two-day MRC meeting are slim, as Thailand and Vietnam reportedly reached a bilateral agreement last month to ask Laos for a 10-year delay of any Mekong dam project.
Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, could not confirm that existence of the bilateral agreement, but he said, “We expect to hear good news from Laos at the meeting.”
It remains unclear nonetheless, how the ministers will come to a decision on Laos’ project at the MRC Council meeting, which is set to conclude Thursday.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement requires MRC governments to unanimously agree on any project that affects the mainstream Mekong, but no single country can veto a project.
In April, MRC representatives were unable to agree on the Xayaburi project, with Cambodia and Thailand requesting that Laos conducts more environmental impact studies, while Vietnam demanded a 10-year project delay.
Laos has continued to push ahead with the $3.5-billion project and began construction work at the site in the northern Laos. It also commissioned a new study to provide more project impact information to other MRC members, but environmentalists have said the study did not address downstream impacts.
Daovong Phonekeo, deputy director general at the department of electricity of Laos at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, said yesterday that the study did address concerns of other MRC countries and new design modifications would ensure that the Xayaburi project’s impacts on downstream countries were “insignificant.”
“[We] believe that the project should not be delayed unreasonably as it will deprive development opportunity of the poor people in this region,” he said in an email.
Cambodia has said it would ask Laos at the MRC meeting to carry out more impact studies, while also supporting Vietnam’s official request for a 10-year delay of all Mekong dams.
Thailand has been less open about where it stands.
“We cannot say that our position is to oppose or not to oppose the construction” of the Xayaburi project, Thai government spokesperson Titima Chaisang said in an e-mail Monday.
Thailand has an interest in the Xayaburi dam as Thai developers and banks have agreed to fund and develop it, while the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand is keen to import most of the dam’s energy.
However, despite these official positions at the MRC, some official sources say a deal to stop the Xayaburi dam was already worked out by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asean meeting in Bali last month.
A Cambodian official with knowledge of MRC decision-making on Xayaburi said Cambodia had been informed that the prime ministers of Vietnam and Thailand had reached an agreement that no Mekong dams should be built in the next 10 years, a move that would leave Laos no choice but to postpone its plans.
“If we talk about this agreement in Bali, you could say that MRC does not need to talk again because it [the Xayaburi project] has been decided on already,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.
He added, “It’s an agreement at the top [level], but how this statement will be implemented on the lower level [the MRC meeting] I don’t know.”
Mr Navuth, from the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said he did not know of the deal, although he added that Cambodia “expected good news.”
He said Laos had taken various steps in the run-up to the meeting to push the project forward, such as attempting to take the Xayaburi project off the MRC meeting’s agenda and agreeing with Vietnam to conduct a joint study on Mekong dams, without informing Cambodia.
Mr Navuth said the moves had frustrated Cambodian officials who want “the Lao government to share all information and assessment studies under the MRC.”
The Xayaburi project is the first of nine dams planned by Laos on the Lower Mekong as part of its development strategy of becoming “the battery of Southeast Asia.”
China, which is not a MRC member, is meanwhile completing a massive cascade of eight dams on the Upper Mekong.
Vietnam and Cambodia are deeply concerned about the Xayaburi dam and fear it would lead to more projects in Laos going ahead.
Eric Baran, senior scientist at the World Fish Center, said the Xayaburi project alone would prevent 70 fish species from migrating upstream, adding that downstream impacts on fisheries had not been studied.
In Cambodia, the dam would also impact river flow and sedimentation, he said, adding, “The loss of sediments and nutrients downstream could in turn have a far-reaching impact on erosion […] and on floodplain productivity.”
A 2010 MRC study estimated that if Laos builds six Mekong dams the total fish catch in the Mekong Basin, currently about 2 millions tons, would drop by 600,000 tons. A third of that would be lost in Cambodia, affecting millions of fishermen.
The study advised a 10-year deferral of the Mekong dams, a conclusion that has been supported by the US, the World Bank and other foreign donors.
Civil society groups from across the region and tens of thousands of petitioners have repeatedly called for a delay of the Mekong dams.
Yesterday, the Save the Mekong coalition issued a letter signed by 39 NGOs that called on MRC countries to stop the project.
“The Council meeting represents a final opportunity for the MRC member governments to […] prevent harm to the river’s ecosystems and the livelihood of its people,” it said.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap coordinator for the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said the approximately 1.5 million Cambodians living on the Tonle Sap lake had grown worried about the Mekong dam plans after NGOs had held local seminars and handed out information about the projects.
“The fishermen are extremely concerned that the Xayaburi dam will be built because it will cause irregular water flow and loss of fish,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)