News / Asia

Laos to Hear Out Mekong Neighbors on Hydro Project

Villagers hold fish-shaped placards at Thailand's Administrative Court, Bangkok, June 24, 2014.
Villagers hold fish-shaped placards at Thailand's Administrative Court, Bangkok, June 24, 2014.

Laos has informed members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that it intends to move ahead with construction of the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam but will consider project modifications based on concerns of neighboring countries.

In a change of stance, Lao government officials said Thursday they will cooperate with the MRC and development partners before advancing the large and controversial project.

Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have raised concerns about the environmental impact of the project.

Laos previously insisted the hydroelectric dam's placement — on a braid of the Mekong and not on the mainstream — meant the project proposal needn't comply with the commission's formal prior-consultation process.

MRC Chief Executive Officer Hans Guttman told reporters his secretariat will facilitate the process, but that Laos could simply ignore objections because “there is no formal democratic process.”

“It does allow for a more formal consideration of the potential consequences and allows the Lao government then to take that in consideration if that would be the case," he said. "But the process in itself does not necessarily say that we vote on the issue in the end.”

Chote Trachu, Thailand's permanent secretary at the Ministry of Natural Resources, says his government appreciates Laos's shift to more inclusive consultation process.

The International Rivers non-governmental organization calls the change “an opportunity for neighboring countries to have a voice in whether or not the project is built.” But in the meantime, the group says, Laos “should stop all construction at the site of the Don Sahong dam” so a true project assessment can be conducted.

Many environmental groups contend the hydroelectric project would destroy the river’s ecological system by blocking migration of fish.

Laos says it will continue work already started to improve channels in the project area to aid fish migration.

There is also substantial concern about the construction already progressing on another Mekong dam in Laos: The Xayaburi dam, financed by commercial banks in Thailand, is intended to produce about 1,300 megawatts of electricity, nearly all of it to be purchased by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).

Last week, a consortium of conservation groups, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), sent a letter to the junta which now holds all executive and legislative power in Thailand asking for it to suspend or cancel the power purchase agreement for the dam.

The appeal calls the project “one of the potentially most damaging dams currently under construction anywhere in the world,” and one that “constitutes the greatest trans-boundary threat to date [regarding] food security, sustainable development and regional cooperation in the lower Mekong River basin.”

Cambodia and Vietnam have also objected to the Xayaburi project.

Thailand's Supreme Administrative Court this week agreed to consider a lawsuit against the dam's power purchase agreement.

International Rivers on Thursday hailed the court's move as “a clear indication of the adverse trans-boundary impact the Xayaburi Dam is likely to have on the Mekong River's ecosystem and people, despite earlier claims made by the Lao government that the project would be sustainable.”

The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, originating in the mountains of Qinghai province in China.

The lower Mekong basin supports nearly 60 million people. The river’s fish are an important source of protein consumed by that population. And the sediment and nutrients at the river’s mouth are critical for Vietnam’s productivity in the delta.

There are plans to construct a total of 12 hydro-power projects on the lower sections of the Mekong’s mainstream. Proponents say the projects are critical for economic development in the booming region and will help alleviate poverty.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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