US Senate Calls For Delay of Mekong Dams

Thousands sign petition  against Laos’ Xayaburi

As Mekong River Commission (MRC) countries prepare for a cru­cial meeting next week to de­bate Laos’ proposal to build the first Lower Mekong River dam, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has called for a delay of the controversial project.

The US Senate’s concern was echoed yesterday in the form of a petition signed by more than 20,000 people that was submitted to the Lao Embassy in Bangkok calling for a postponement of the Xayaburi dam construction.

The US Senate Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution by Senator Jim Webb, stating that the Committee “supports delay of the construction of mainstream hydropower dams along the Mekong River until the comprehensive environmental as­sessments have been completed and adequate planning and mul­tilateral coordination has been achieved.”

Senator Webb, who chairs the Senate’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, appealed for the delay, citing the lack of studies on the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the 11 Lower Mekong dams that have been proposed in Laos and Cambodia.

He said in a statement that the US and the international community have “a strategic interest” in protecting the livelihoods of the approximately 60 million people who depend on the Mekong River, adding that the resolution sent “a timely signal” ahead of a three-day MRC meeting on the Xayaburi dam that starts on December 7 in Siem Reap City.

The Senate Committee resolution also called on non-MRC members Burma and China, which also share the Mekong River, to step up environmental protection of the waterway. China is building a massive cascade of hydropower dams on the Upper Mekong, but Burma has little development on the river so far.

Last year Senator Webb released a similar appeal, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has previously urged for “a pause” before developing Mekong dams.

Water resources and environment ministers from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand will attend the meeting in Siem Reap City next week to jointly decide on Laos’ proposal for the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam, which would be the first Lower Mekong dam.

Laos has been trying to push the project through the MRC since late last year, but other countries have asked for more studies on its far-reaching environmental impacts.

International Rivers, an environmental group, said yesterday that they had presented a petition signed by 22,589 people to the Lao Embassy in Bangkok and to the Thai government. The petition appeals to Laos to defer a decision on Mekong dams for at least 10 years and for Thailand to abandon its tentative plans to purchase electricity produced by the Xayaburi project.

“People around the world are concerned about the Xayaburi project because the Mekong River is a river of global significance, as it’s the second most biodiverse river in the world,” said Ame Trandem, the group’s Southeast Asia program director, adding that most of the online signatories of the petition came from Europe and the US.

Ms Trandem said by telephone that the construction of the Xayaburi dam- located in northern Laos-would directly impact Cambodia, as it would block river sedimentation flows and key migration routes of “23 to 100 fish species,” while pushing 40 other fish species into extinction.

Approving the Xayaburi project, she added, “will determine what is the acceptable level of development for the Mekong. It’s likely to lead to the construction of more dams on the Mekong and those are more destructive than Xayaburi.”

Cambodian officials have said that at the MRC meeting they will again request Laos to conduct more impact studies, while they will support Vietnam’s request to defer the project for up to 10 years to allow for such studies.

Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said the committee would take note of the US Senate’s resolution and the public petition, but he added, “We have so many opinions on this issue, formal and non-formal.”

Lao Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisolit told the Bloomberg news agency on Nov 20 that dam construction would only begin if other MRC members would give off “positive signals” about the project.

Om Savath, director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, a local organization in Cambodia, said the decision on the Xayaburi dam was key to Cambodia’s future, as about 1.5 million Cambodians make a daily living from fishing, most of them on the Tonle Sap lake and Mekong River, while another 4.5 million people depend on seasonal fishing in both rivers.

“The Cambodian people want the Lao government to re-plan and study this project more,” he said, adding that even without Mekong dams many villagers were already facing a shrinking fish catch.

Many foreign donors and NGOs from across the region are supporting a 2010 MRC study that advised a 10-year hiatus before development of any of the 11 planned Mekong dams, which would likely devastate fisheries and affect millions of fishermen.


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