BANGKOK - A Laotian official said on Friday his government would allow environmental assessments before proceeding with construction of a dam on the Mekong River that activists and neighboring states say could hurt the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers.
Laos went ahead with the much bigger Xayaburi dam despite opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia. It was more conciliatory over the Don Sahong dam at a meeting in Bangkok of the Mekong River Commission Council grouping countries along the river.
Officials from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam agreed on Thursday to the consultation process for the dam, which is still in the planning phase.
Viraphone Viravong, Laos's vice minister of energy and mines, told reporters that construction would not start during the six-month consultation process.
“No, we will not start building. That is courtesy. Laotians are courteous,” he told reporters.
Don Sahong is the second of 11 hydroelectric dams planned for the Mekong mainstream and forms part of Laos's ambitions to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”.
It will generate 260 megawatts of electricity, mainly for export to Thailand and Cambodia compared to Xayaburi's 1,260 megawatts, around 95 percent of which will go to Thailand.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for the environmentalist group International Rivers, welcomed the decision, but said further action was needed “to ensure that the rapid progress of dam building on the Mekong ... does not go unchecked”.
Laos's dam projects have raised concern about disturbance of fish migration as well as the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of fishermen.
Viraphone said Laos was addressing such concerns.
“No matter what happens to Don Sahong, whether it is delayed or stopped, we will continue to improve fish migration because that is the only way to have a substainable fish industry in Laos,” he said.
Laos accepted environmental and other studies for the Xayaburi dam after pressure from its neighbors, but went ahead with construction even while they were being conducted.
Xayaburi is now almost 40 percent finished, Viraphone said. “Everything has gone according to plan.”
The recommendations resulting from the studies of the Don Sahong project would not be binding on Laos.
“It is still a sovereign decision by the member country whether they go ahead with the project or not,” Hans Guttman, head of the Mekong River Commission, said after the meeting.