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We’ve been blogging about the proposed Xayaburi dam a lot lately, because this project really needs to be stopped until a complete transboundary assessment is conducted and proper consultations that meet international standards are done. Recently, we’ve seen signs that Mekong leaders are finally realizing, in the face of overwhelming opposition, that the only legal and logical way of proceeding is to officially hold off approval and construction until these steps are taken.

We have been following news from the 19th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits held last week in Bali, Indonesia to get an idea of where Mekong governments stand on the issue of the proposed dam in Laos. If recent public statements by Mekong leaders are to be believed, it seems that any further construction of the dam – the first on the lower Mekong mainstream – will have to wait.

Laos to wait for “positive signals”

Lao Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisolit said in an interview that his government will wait for “positive signals” from its neighbors before it builds the hydropower plant. According to Sisolit, “Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia share the common position that any construction activity will take place only if positive signals are given by the experts,” and adds that, “We will be pleased to listen to the concerns and opinions of all parties.”

This is a departure from statements made by Lao Electricity Department Director-General Viraponh Viravong in September when, in an interview with the Bangkok Post, he categorically said that Laos will proceed with the Xayaburi project, and confirmed the construction of roads on the site. A special report by the Bangkok Post revealed that the construction of a major road leading to the dam site was 90% finished.

Vietnam to seek Japan’s support with assessment

At the Mekong-Japan Summit, also in Bali, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung stressed the importance of the Mekong River in the socio-economic development of all sub-regional countries, and said that coordination among Mekong countries to study and assess impacts on habitat is urgent. According to the Prime Minister, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam should ask Japan to assist in studying and assessing environmental impacts before making decisions on construction of hydropower projects on the Mekong River’s mainstream. Vietnam News reported that such an agreement has been reached among the four countries. Vietnam has been consistent with its stand of asking for a deferment on the project for at least ten years.

Did flooding shift Thailand’s priorities?

Thailand, on the other hand, raised the issue of disaster relief and water management, and showed preference for smaller dams. Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will investigate setting up a network of weirs and dykes to provide water during droughts and generate clean electricity.

According to Tovichakchaikul, “We are not talking about dams but weirs — smaller dams which can produce electricity from water. This coincides with green growth. The prime minister will raise this on further occasions and we are confident that other countries would agree. This is clean energy.” China’s huge dams along the Mekong River result in droughts in certain parts of Thailand and Laos, the foreign minister said.

“If we build these smaller dams … we can control the flow of water and we can produce electricity. We will get water during droughts for our farmers and water to produce electricity. We can build a continuous number. This is a new idea,” he said.

Thailand is the purchaser of 95% of the energy to be generated from the proposed Xayaburi dam.

Looking ahead: No “positive signals” in sight

The “positive signals” sought by the Lao government should be hard to come by, given the project’s present form and the official results of stakeholder consultations conducted by the Mekong River Commission (“MRC”). The Strategic Environmental Assessment (“SEA”) commissioned by the MRC recommends a general deferment of ten years for all proposed dam projects along the Lower Mekong mainstream. The Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIA”) prepared by Xayaburi project proponents has been described by experts as flawed and substandard. In reviews submitted to the MRC as part of the regional consultation process, five specialists in the fields of fisheries, livelihood restoration, consultation and water quality expressed surprise that an EIA of such poor quality was being submitted for a project with such far-reaching impacts as the first dam on the lower Mekong mainstream.

While clearly insufficient for what the SEA has dubbed as “the most important strategic decision ever made by Lower Mekong Basin countries on use of their shared resources”, consultations with potentially affected communities, academic and research institutions, individuals, media and NGOs have resulted in nothing but negative signals. The MRC’s official documentation of these consultations present the following conclusions:

  • Many concerns were raised on the loss of fish, sediment trapping, changes in water quality and flow regime, hydrology, overall ecology and biodiversity.
  • The stakeholder consultation process needs to be transparent, open and accountable. All documents related to the projects, especially the EIA need to be released to the public in a timely manner before the stakeholder consultations take place in order to allow effective involvement.
  • The six-month timeframe for the prior consultation process is considered too short and needs to be reconsidered.
  • More time is needed to allow further in-depth studies, and give more time to the developer to incorporate recommendations accordingly. Stakeholder consultations done at the end of the process is considered inappropriate. Consultations should start at the beginning of such processes in a continuous manner.
  • A 10-year or a particular time of delay of mainstream dam development has been suggested by some meeting participants to allow a thorough research before projects are implemented.
  • There is a need for deeper study on the transboundary impacts, in particular the impact on specific locations and on each downstream country.
  • Transboundary social impacts, as well as the MRC Preliminary Design Guidelines, need to be included as part of considerations.

Laos has tried to ward off criticisms of the $ 3.7 billion-project by commissioning Switzerland-based Poyry Energy AG to review the project’s compliance with MRC requirements. The Poyry report found the project to be “principally in compliance” with the MRC’s requirements. Upon review, however, it was found that the report contains numerous inconsistencies and scientific shortcomings, which make it an unsuitable basis for decision-making among the MRC member governments. Among these shortcomings is that it underestimates the proposed dam’s impact on fish species and sediment flows that provide nutrients for downstream crops.

MRC decision looming

The MRC Council — composed of Cambodia’s Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology, and Thailand’s, Lao’s and Vietnam’s Ministers of Natural Resources and Environment – is set to meet on December 7 and 8 in Siem Reap, Cambodia to decide whether or not to proceed with the Xayaburi hydropower project. With the public statements made by the Laos and Vietnamese Prime Ministers, and the unequivocal findings of official consultations, it’s hard to conceive of an MRC Council decision other than a deferment, at worst, or a total cancellation, at best. Meanwhile, ERI and other civil society groups remain vigilant.