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Civil society groups have been consistent with their advice to deciding governments on the Xayaburi dam project: evaluate all risks before proceeding, and get the people who stand to be affected involved in the process.

With only six weeks until the governments of Cambodia, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam through the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council jointly decide on the fate of the Xayaburi dam, regional campaign efforts are in full swing to discuss the repercussions of proceeding with the project with the current state of information.

In September, the Mekong Legal Network, an independent group of legal professionals and civil society leaders, discussed the use of national, regional and international legal frameworks to ensure that decisions adequately consider the impacts of the project and allow for greater public participation.

On October 2nd, Pan Nature, an NGO based in Vietnam, held a roundtable discussion on Mekong dams, covering a wide range of topics including energy policies in the region, the involvement of international financial institutions, human security issues, regional development cooperation, and the need for legal and institutional reforms.

This week, a panel discussion on the Xayaburi project was held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT). Academics and civil society representatives discussed recent findings on risks faced by people along the river including risks posed by seismic fault lines near the dam, and the roles and duties of key actors, especially the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), project developers, and project financers.

The decision to table the Xayaburi hydropower project for consideration at ministerial level in the MRC Council meeting set for November 22, 2011 was made last April, when the four MRC countries failed to achieve a consensus on how to proceed with the project. While Lao insisted there was no need to extend the prior consultation process and that transboundary environmental impacts on other riparian countries was unlikely, the other three countires raised concerns on gaps in technical knowledge and studies, impacts on the environment and livelihoods of people, and the need for more public consultations. The Council is a body of the MRC that consists of one member from each country at ministerial or cabinet level. It meets once a year and has the main task of making policy decisions as the body having overall governance of the Commission.

In this week’s FCCT panel discussion, Carl Middleton, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University who has been studying Mekong river issues, gave the clear message that the decision should be made not to proceed with the project. He reiterated the need for all states involved to comply with regional and international legal commitments and highlighted the responsibility of Thai actors involved in the project – for project developer Ch. Karnchang (a Thai company) and financing banks Kasikorn Bank, Bangkok Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and Krung Thai Bank (all Thai banks) to observe national and international laws and standards, and to implement their publicized policies on corporate social responsibility; for state enterprise EGAT, as buyer of 95% of Xayaburi power and partial project owner (due to its 25% shareholding in Electricity Generating Public Company Limited or EGCO, which in turn is an investor in the Xayaburi development) to take the same responsibility; and for the government of Thailand to implement its stated energy industry policy for “sustainable development in social, economic and environmental aspects” (Section 8, Energy Industry Act B.E. 9550).

Srisuwan Kuankachorn, co-director of the NGO Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA) challenged Thailand’s projected power demand and said that there would be no need for the Xayaburi power purchase if the policy to “promote economical, efficient and worthwhile use of energy” (Section 8, Energy Industry Act B.E. 9550) was implemented. He also made the observation that fundamental flaws in Thailand’s energy sector – such as the lack of transparency, missing social and ecological dimensions, vested interests, and insufficient public critical awareness – are leading to the over-forecasting of energy needs, the lack of accountability, poor conservation targets, and the absence of will to conserve energy.

These recent civil society initiatives highlight the importance of the decision to be made by the four governments on November 22, and emphasize each government’s responsibility to fully understand what risks it is taking, how acceptable these risks are, whether they’re worth taking at all, and whether there exist more acceptable options other than building the mainstream dam. The strong opposition from a broad range of national and international groups can not be ignored, and at this point, it seems clear that the interests of both proponents and oppositors can only be fully considered if the project is halted, further studies especially on transboundary impacts are done, and a more informed and participative decision-making process is put in place.