Xayaburi vote to test Mekong friendships

Bangkok Post 7 December 2011

By Saritdet Marukatat | Opinion-Editorial Pages Editor

Analysis: Riparian nations are meeting in Siem Reap, with wider implications for Laos' relationship with downstream countries at stake as well as the future of a controversial dam project

Members of the Network of Thai People representing eight Mekong provinces rally in Nong Khai yesterday to protest against the proposed Xayaburi dam upstream in Laos.

Laos' relations with Thailand and other downstream countries in the Mekong River will be tested when their ministers meet with the future of the Xayaburi dam project at stake.

Laos will attend the three-day Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council meeting starting today in Siem Reap with confidence that the landlocked country can convince other MRC members _ Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam _ to back the project after completion of the consultation process.

"Laos will make sure that this dam will not impact countries in the lower Mekong River basin," the Vientiane Times newspaper quoted Lao Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphon Viravong as saying on Thursday.

Thailand has signalled its support for the project but distanced itself from environmental and ecological consequences should they occur after the dam's construction.

Thai backing was not surprising given the benefits of the project to Thailand, said Adisorn Semyaem, an analyst at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

The Xayaburi dam will churn out 1,260 megawatts of electricity, 95% of which will be sold to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. Ch Karnchang Plc is responsible for the construction.

"With the commitment to Thailand, there is no way for Laos to turn back," Mr Adisorn said.

The project was deferred in the MRC meeting on April 19 for further study.

Failure to get the green light for the project from other MRC members this time could send a negative signal to other foreign investors eyeing further dam projects in Laos, he added.

The main stumbling block for Laos is not the Thai government. Hanoi and Phnom Penh have cried foul about the project for fear of the impact downstream, especially on the fertile agricultural land in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.

The ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party has close ties with the Communist Party of Vietnam and the People's Party led by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Laos has dismissed concerns about insufficient flow of water downstream as a result of the proposed dam. But Cambodia and Vietnam are still worried about the impact of the project on their rice basket in the delta.

Laos' success in pushing for the Xayaburi dam project to go ahead at the meeting could have an effect on relations with its Indochina allies, especially Vietnam, said Mr Adisorn.

"Vietnam will not be happy with the project approval. It will have impacts on Lao-Vietnamese relations to some extent," he added.

But Mr Adisorn predicted that "Laos will do everything to get it going", despite calls from Cambodia and Vietnam to put the project on hold.

Another stumbling block for Laos is strong opposition from regional and international environmentalists and ecologists who fear approval of the Xayaburi dam project will set off a race between MRC members to build 10 more dams on the Mekong River, adding to the ecological impacts.

Ahead of the Siem Reap meeting, the Save the Mekong Coalition even ran full-page adverts in several Thai and Cambodian newspapers opposing the project.

The umbrella of 39 civic groups is urging Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to scrap the project for good.

"Our message is simple: Protecting the Mekong River is vital to ensuring healthy fisheries, abundant agriculture and supporting the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the region," Chhtih Sam Ath of the NGO Forum on Cambodia said.