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Cambodia, Vietnam Voice Concern at Mekong River Commission Meeting

  • Gabrielle Paluch

Representatives from Southeast Asia countries are meeting in Laos this week to discuss development projects on the Mekong River. A key issue for the Mekong River Commission has been evaluating a planned hydropower dam in Laos that environmentalists worry could damage river ecosystems that millions of people downstream depend on.

During this weeks talks, representatives from Vietnam and Cambodia objected to how Laos carried out the consultation process before starting construction on the Xayaburi dam - the first to obstruct the main stem of the Mekong river.

Officials from the nations are not commenting on the record, but others who attended the talks say Vietnam requested a 10-year moratorium on decisions over mainstream dams, saying authorities have not sufficiently studied how they can impact people downstream.

Construction on the Xayaburi dam was officially announced last November, more than a year after actual construction had begun - without member state consensus, and in violation of the 1995 Mekong agreement

Pianporn Deetes is the Thailand campaign coordinator for International Rivers, a non-governmental organization that monitors the Mekong.

“Concerns raised by member countries have not been addressed comprehensively. Important to also recognize the concern raised by affected communities which represent 60 million people in all four countries," he said. "It's not just lives of a few people but 60 million and we applaud Cambodia and Vietnam for upholding their responsibility in the 1995 Mekong Agreement."

Although the Lao government has grand plans to become the "battery" of Asia, and the power produced by the $3.5 billion hydroelectric dam would mean critical income for an economy with an annual GDP of roughly $8 billion, environmentalists worry the project could threaten the lives and livelihoods of communities downstream.

International Rivers estimates over 70% of the protein consumed by Cambodians is sourced in the Mekong River.

Former Thai MP Kraisak Choonhavan believes the responsibility for the rush to construction lies with Thai corporations who have chosen to disregard the social impacts of their investments. "The Xayaburi project is all financed by Thais and Thai banks and Thai construction and Thai corporate interests. That is putting Laos on the brink of a social disaster. Tens of thousands of people have been moved and there's no representation," he said.

Although Thailand's demand for electricity, and the economic benefits of the dam are undeniable, activists believe it is not yet too late to halt the project.

Mark Goichot, who works for the World Wildlife Fund on sustainable hydropower projects in Laos, says the Lao government may not fully realize the impact this dam could have on its ecosystem and neighbors, but that the Vietnam and Cambodian governments have made demands that cannot be denied.

"Yes in principle it would be difficult not to follow this very strong recommendation. It will go on unless studies demonstrate that the impacts are significant," said Goichot. "We do not think it is too late to stop it. Concerns are growing and opposition is still very strong to the project so it is more and more difficult to justify it."

Donors and member countries of the commission visited the construction site of the Xayaburi dam Friday to inspect its progress. In the past, the MRC has been criticized for lacking the means or the ability to make the Lao government adhere to the organization's recommendations