Ahead of Tuesday’s Mekong River Commission meeting that will decide on Laos’ proposal to build the first dam on the Mekong river, an influential US Senator spoke out against the plan, saying the current Mekong dam plans could destabilize Southeast Asia.
Senator Jim Webb, who heads the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, warned on Thursday that the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam could bring “irreversible damage to the region,” due to a current lack of planning and cooperation between Mekong river countries, including China and Burma.
“I believe it would be prudent to delay the construction of any mainstream dam along the river […] until adequate planning and multilateral coordination can be guaranteed,” Sen Webb said in a statement posted on his website. “Absent this collaborative approach, the stability of Southeast Asia is at risk.”
Sen Webb said approving the Xayaburi dam would set “a dangerously harmful precedent,” adding that US and the international community have “a strategic interest” in protecting the livelihoods of the roughly 60 million people who depend on the Mekong.
In October Sen Webb called on the US government to withdraw US funding for the MRC if the current Xayaburi project goes ahead. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly backed a 10-year moratorium on Mekong dam construction.
MRC members Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand are scheduled to meet in Vientiane on Tuesday to decide whether or not to approve the Xayaburi dam.
Civil society groups from across the region have criticized the MRC’s decision-making process so far, saying it lacked openness and public accountability, as river communities were not properly consulted and important project studies were withheld from the public.
The NGOs and many foreign donors support an MRC study released in November that advised a 10-year wait before developing any of the 11 planned Mekong dams, as the dams would devastate fisheries and affect millions of fishermen. In Cambodia alone the dams could affect 1.8 million fishermen.
Thai newspaper the Bangkok Post reported Saturday that Lao authorities meanwhile, have been preparing for an approval of the Xayaburi project and Thai project developer Ch. Karnchang Public Company has begun work on access roads to the construction site in northern Laos.
The paper said a field investigation found that “major road works under construction and villagers were preparing to be relocated,” as far as 30 km from the site of the $3.5 billion project.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap welcomed Sen Webb’s efforts to preserve the Mekong, as Cambodia had much to lose if Mekong dams go ahead.
“As I am Cambodian, I support and thank the US Senator’s concerns about this problem,” Mr Yeap said. “Up to 90 percent of Cambodians depend on fish from the Mekong…. The welfare of the people who use the Mekong will suffer from the Xayaburi dam.”
“We oppose the dam, but we don’t know how [Laos] thinks. They should understand Cambodia,” he said, adding that he was not particularly concerned about the fact that Laos was reportedly already building access roads for the dam. “The construction could still be canceled,” he said.
Tep Bunharith, director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association based in Stung Treng City, said he hoped Sen Webb’s statement would add further weight to the arguments against the Xayaburi dam.
“Many in the international community are concerned” about the Mekong dams, he said. “We still need assistance and the voice of the international community to stop the first Mekong dam.”
The Cambodian National Mekong Committee said last week Cambodia would ask Laos at the meeting to conduct more studies on the dam’s design and downstream impact, as much of this information was still missing.
Vietnam has so far been vocal in its opposition against the Xayaburi dam, but Thailand-which would invest in the project and buy its electricity-has reportedly not objected to it.