Phnom Penh Post 24 June 2011
By Thomas Miller
Environmentalists have accused the Lao government of going “rogue” in moving ahead with the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River despite grave concerns about the project and an unfinished regional decision-making process.
Laos said last month it would delay the US$3.8 billion project and subject it to further study following vocal concerns from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand that the project would dramatically affect water levels and decimate fish stocks throughout the Mekong Basin.
The four countries are bound by a 1995 agreement to hold consultations before building developments that would affect the river. After a special meeting in April of the Mekong River Commission – a regional body established under the 1995 treaty – the countries said they would delay a decision on whether to conclude discussion on the project until a summit later this year.
Documents obtained by The Post yesterday, however, indicate that the project is going ahead regardless.
The conservation group International Rivers yesterday expressed alarm at Laos’s apparent disregard for its neighbours’ concerns.
“By deciding unilaterally that the regional decision-making process is complete, the Government of Laos has committed an egregious breach of trust and has joined the ranks of rogue nations,” Ame Trandem, the Mekong campaigner for International Rivers, said in a statement yesterday.
In a letter dated June 8, Xaypaseuth Phomsoupha, director-general of the department of energy promotion and development in the Lao Ministry of Mines and Energy, claimed that Vientiane had already met its obligations under the consultat-ion process.
The letter, addressed to Xayaburi Power Co Ltd, a subsidiary of Thailand’s Ch Karnchang Public Co Ltd, the primary backer of the project, discussed a study by the Finnish consulting firm Pöyry contracted by the Lao government “to determine whether the Lao PDR had fulfilled its obligations pursuant to the 1995 Mekong Agreement”.
According to the letter, Xaypaseuth said Pöyry had found that “the Prior Consultation of the Xayaburi Project has now been completed and the Prior Consultation process has ended at the MRC Joint Committee level”.
Xaypaseuth concluded: “Accordingly, despite certain other remaining commitments, we hereby confirm that any necessary step in relation to the 1995 Mekong Agreement has been duly taken in a spirit of cooperat-ion and working together of all relevant parties.”
The letter did not mention that a decision on whether to end the consultation process had been deferred to a meeting later this year, and regional governments had demanded more information about the project’s impact.
A study commissioned by the MRC recommended last year that the countries delay decis-ions about mainstream dams for 10 years because of a lack of knowledge about how they would impact on the region.
A separate letter – from Xayaburi Power to Suthat Patmasiriwat, governor of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand – repeated the claim that the MRC process had already been completed.
“Having completely fulfilled all requirements under the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the [consultation process], we are now ready to execute the Xayaburi PPA with EGAT,” Xayaburi Power chairman Plew Trivisvavet wrote in a bid to secure a power- purchasing agreement.
But Surasak Glahan, a communications officer at the MRC, said in an email yesterday that a final decision had yet to be made on whether to conclude the consultation process.
Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said yesterday the Kingdom was still awaiting the results of further study of the project by Laos as well as the opportunity to discuss it through the MRC. He added that the lack of consensus among the four countries on the project meant that “the discussion is still ongoing”.
“We expect that the result from the study would be shared and discussed within the countries,” Te Navuth said, adding that other MRC member countries would “request additional study” by Laos if its initial report was not satisfactory.
Kham Chanh, deputy director of the department of energy promotion and development in the Lao Ministry of Mines and Energy, said yesterday he did not know whether the Lao government considered the consultat-ion process to be finished.
“I don’t know exactly [if] this issue is complete or not,” he said, adding that his government would make the consulting firm’s recommendations public.
Whether such a disclosure will assuage concerns about the dam is another matter.
International Rivers said in its statement that the letters discussing the project raised questions about the study: “It now appears that the study was a cursory, one-month review of the [consultation] process and not a review of the environmental and social impacts of the project.”
Meanwhile, an “informal” meeting of MRC donors was held yesterday in Phnom Penh and was expected to continue today, with the Xayaburi project on the agenda, Surasak said.