I’m pleased to report that the Mekong River and the millions of people dependent upon it received an important reprieve this week. The Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese government administrators in the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) recommended that a decision on whether to proceed with the Xayaburi hydropower dam in northern Laos should be delayed until relevant government Ministers gather at the MRC Council meeting in October this year.

In October last year, a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report on the mainstream dams, commissioned by the MRC, recommended a ten year deferment in decision-making over the Mekong mainstream dams, including the Xayaburi Dam, partly due to the huge environmental and social risks of the project and weak institutional and legal frameworks. The Mekong Legal Network (MLN) had made a submission to the MRC on the inadequacies of the national legal frameworks for hydropower projects in the region.

The ERI Mekong School Alumni and MLN have continued to monitor the project closely. Alumni representatives attended public consultations in Thailand and Cambodia facilitated by the MRC earlier this year. The Laos government refused to hold a consultation, saying that the consultation conducted under the EIA was sufficient, even though it is widely acknowledged this was inadequate. The Laos government refused to release the project documents and EIA before any of the consultations.

ERI also facilitated workshops on mainstream dams for the alumni and MLN in Cambodia and Laos to fill in the information gaps left by the MRC consultation process. Alumni representatives signed Save the Mekong campaign letters to MRC Secretariat about the inadequacy of the consultation process.

Although the delay is an important victory for the environment and affected communities, it is only temporary, and if the Laos and Thai governments decide to proceed with construction, Cambodia and Vietnam are not legally empowered to stop them under the MRC Agreement of 1995. The Laos government and the Thai developer of the dam, CH. Karnchang, are keen to proceed with the project, shown by reports last week that construction on roads linked to the project had already started and that some communities have already been told they’ll be resettled.  Thai Energy Ministry officials have also already signed an agreement to buy 95% of the power from the project if it proceeds, and have down-played the environmental impacts of the project. Four Thai commercial banks are also ready to finance the project.

So there’s a lot more work to do, including lobbying the Thai developer and Thai commercial banks to implement principles of corporate social responsibility based on human rights.