In a gesture likely aimed at placating its neighbors, Laos has agreed to submit its second Mekong River dam to the regional consultation process it sidestepped last year.
But experts say Laos is nowhere close to abandoning the dam and another it's building on the Mekong. Environmental groups say these projects threaten the livelihood of tens of millions of people who depend on the mighty river.
“I fear that this will, at the best, only delay the construction by six months,” Marc Goichot, who works for environmental group WWF's Greater Mekong program on sustainable hydropower, told Thanh Nien News.
“There are not yet any signs that the proponents of the project are taking seriously the concerns voiced by other Mekong riparian governments,” he said, adding that he believes the Lao government is unlikely to reconsider the project.
Last September, Laos announced that it would embark on the Don Sahong project, the second of 11 dams planned by Laos on the lower reaches of the 4,900-kilometer (3,045-mile)-long Mekong, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity. Work on the Don Sahong dam is slated to begin in December at a site less than two kilometers from the Cambodian border, according to Lao officials.
Cambodian fishermen who live by the Mekong River pass the time by their boats outside Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Reuters
Environmental groups have warned that the 260-megawatt dam threatens to block the only channel that currently allows year-round fish migrations on a large scale and will certainly wipe out one of the last populations of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
Laos, which shrugged off those concerns altogether, has also been at odds with its riparian neighbors -- particularly Vietnam and Cambodia -- over the project's prior consultation (e.g. regional decision-making) process.
Laos maintains that it need only notify its neighbors of its intent to build the dam because it is located neither in the tributary nor on the mainstream of the Mekong. It's downstream neighbors, however, have demanded that the consultation process take place before the dam is built, citing its trans-boundary impacts.
Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are bound by a 1995 Mekong treaty that requires each signatory to hold inter-governmental consultations before damming the river. No single country has veto powers and Laos will have the final say on whether or not to proceed.
At a regional meeting of the Mekong River Commission -- a regional body established to coordinate dam projects on the river -- in Bangkok on Thursday, Laos said it would agree to resubmit the Don Sahong project to the prior consultation process.
But environmentalists say they view the process as a diplomatic formality.
During the meeting, Laos' Deputy Energy Minister Viraphonh Viravong told participants “with your support and constructive input, the Lao government will continue to develop the project in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
He 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 was quoted by Reuters as saying Friday.
Naturally, that didn't go over too well.
A recent site visit by International Rivers, a California-based environmental group, has confirmed that construction work towards the Don Sahong dam in southern Laos has continued despite opposition from neighboring governments and ongoing calls for regional consultation.
The site visit held in early June confirmed that workers have begun construction of a bridge connecting the mainland to Don Sadam Island, the group said. The bridge will create an access route for construction on the Hou Sahong Channel, it added.
"One has to wonder how sincere a consultation process is when infrastructure in support of the project is being put into place at the same time," said Ian Baird, an expert on Laos and specialist on hydro-power dams and fisheries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
‘Laos has few resources’
In November 2012, Laos broke ground on the US$3.8-billion 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam project despite vehement objections from environmental groups and its neighbors who said the 810-meter (2,600ft) dam would unleash massive ecological changes on a river that feeds around 60 million people. The project is now 40 percent complete, according to Lao officials.
Opponents of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects said their commencement would usher in the construction of the 9 other dams planned by Laos on the Mekong, which begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea).
At that time, Laos prematurely insisted that the prior consultation process on the Xayaburi project was already over, which drew sharp criticism from three other Mekong nations. Since then, the four countries have failed to agree on whether or not the process is still ongoing.
“The failure to reach consensus was interpreted by Laos as a green light to move ahead with construction of the Xayaburi dam,” Goichot said. “We cannot see any signs that this will be different for Don Sahong.”
Landlocked Laos plans to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" by exporting the vast majority of its power - mostly to Thailand - and has promoted the Xayaburi dam as a potential source of income and investment that will spur its small economy.
“Laos has few resources. Hydroelectricity is one, and the Lao government is determined to exploit it,” said Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert at the University of Queensland in Australia. “Most dams have been relatively uncontroversial because they have been on tributaries. Don Sahong and Xayaburi are controversial because they are on the Mekong itself,” he said.
“From the Lao point of view, why should they be prevented from exploiting the river?”
Light at the end of the tunnel?
But on the bright side, the concession made by Laos has come at a convenient juncture for environmental groups and activists.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that a Thai court agreed to hear a lawsuit against state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and four other state bodies for agreeing to buy electricity from the Xayaburi project. Thailand plans to buy around 95 percent of the electricity generated by the massive mainstream dam.
Villagers from Thai provinces near the Mekong petitioned the Administrative Court in 2012 to suspend a power purchasing agreement signed by EGAT and Laos's Xayaburi Power Company Limited, but the court ruled it had no jurisdiction to hear the case. That decision was reversed on Tuesday when the Supreme Administrative Court sided with villagers, who are demanding full environmental and health impact assessments.
The court will now call on the Thai government agencies to respond to questions and allow the plaintiff to rebut their response. The court could take a year or longer to render a verdict.
“[If] the power purchase agreement is suspended or cancelled, it will be financially risky for the developer to proceed with construction on the Xayaburi Dam as there will be no buyer for the dam’s electricity,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers.
A growing civil society movement against dam construction has taken hold throughout the region. Meanwhile, Vietnam and Cambodia have reiterated their calls for a 10-year moratorium on all dam construction on the Mekong's mainstream.
Numerous studies have underlined the threat the dam poses to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta (the world’s rice basket) which is already sinking and shrinking.
Activists say that although it is still not too late to halt the dams and devise a plan to promote the sustainable development of the Mekong, success in doing so would hinge on the political will of governments to make sound scientific decisions before forging ahead with any more dam construction.
If the dam-building binge continues unchecked, “Vietnam, as the most downstream country, has probably the most to lose, but millions of people in Cambodia Laos and Thailand are also at risk,” Goichot said.