BANGKOK - The four-nation Mekong River Commission (MRC) this week holds public consultations on the development of a large hydropower dam in southern Laos.
The project is one of a series of planned dams in the Mekong River Basin that environmentalists say could harm an ecosystem critical for feeding millions of people in Southeast Asia.
The two-day regional public consultation in the Lao provincial capital of Pakse in Champasak province lies just north of the proposed 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam that borders Cambodia and Thailand.
Led by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC), the meeting will bring together representatives from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
MRC officials say the consultations will raise issues of concern on the potential impacts from the dam's construction.
The Don Sahong dam is the second planned hydropower project set on the Lower Mekong River's mainstream with construction already underway on the $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos, itself a focus of critical debate.
The hydropower projects, financed and built by Thai companies, with Thailand the main buyer of the electricity, have triggered opposition from local communities, scientists and environmental groups who are fearful of the impact.
U.S.-based environmental group International Rivers regional spokesperson, Ame Trandem, says activists have little confidence that the consultation process will affect the outcome of the decision to build the dam.
"We have many concerns regarding the legitimacy of the process. It's clear that in many ways this is simply a rubberstamping effort made by the Lao government," Trandem said. "And this is because it is clear their intention is to build this dam. So we wonder what is the point of regional consultation."
Trandem says a lack of confidence came after Laos failed to follow up on recommendations raised after the consultations overseeing the Xayaburi Dam, despite calls for the project to be delayed for a full environmental assessment and amid international criticism. The United States was one of several MRC partner nations to warn about development of the Xayaburi Dam.
Environmentalists say construction of the Don Sahong dam on a vital cascading region of the Mekong River will directly impact fish migration, especially vital in dry season, and threaten the last remaining Irrawaddy dolphins in the river system.
Millions of people, including those living near Cambodia's Ton Le Sap Lake, depend on fish stocks as a source of protein. An MRC study warned damming the lower Mekong may reduce fish stocks by up to 300,000 metric tons a year, with potential hardships for communities.
Trandem says such concerns adds to calls for the dam to be stopped.
"It's clear that this is a dam that shouldn't be built," Trandem said. "The Don Sahong Dam is essentially gambling with the future of the Mekong River. It's located in one of the worst possible places imaginable as it is a point where the maximum concentration of fish migration in the river is happening."
Vietnam has been pressing Laos over the dams, especially the impact on the vital Mekong River Delta region, the country's 'rice bowl' and home to 20 million people. Environmental groups in Vietnam in repeated campaigns say the disrupted water flow will affect soil nutrition, and lead to greater water salinity from encroaching seawaters.
Carl Thayer, a political scientist with the Australian-based University of New South Wales, says tensions between Vietnam and Laos are also expected to rise as Vientiane presses ahead with the project.
"It's going to test [Communist] party to party relations between Laos and Vietnam quite severely. And also a bad time for Laos because Vietnam has got one more year to the party congress and there's a plenum to do with pretty strident nationalism in Vietnam. All they have to is have the livelihood of farmers in the Delta Mekong Delta - affected," Thayer said.
Vietnam will next hold a national consultation on the project. In January the four governments' joint committees will meet and are expected to issue a formal statement of the group's position on the project.