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Asia

Temporary victory for environmentalists

Officials from the Mekong River Commission representing Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, have delayed a final decision on the construction of a $3.5 billion dam on the Mekong River in northern Laos.

Thai villagers hold banners reading 'Love Mekong, No Dam' to protest against the proposed dam 'Xayaburi'

Thai villagers hold banners reading 'Love Mekong, No Dam' to protest against the proposed dam 'Xayaburi'

Meeting in the Lao capital of Vientiane Tuesday, representatives of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam announced a delay in the final decision on the 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi hydropower dam in northern Laos, saying further consultations were required.

The Xayaburi Dam is the first proposed project on the lower Mekong basin and is also the first to be decided by a mechanism of consultation within the Mekong River Commission. Discussions just started late last year and the final decision will now be made on ministerial levels in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Environmentalists worry the dam will change the course of the river

Environmentalists worry the dam will change the course of the river



But the consultation process has seen wide differences emerge within the four countries. Laos said the dam should go ahead and be built, but Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have all raised concerns over the project’s impact on the region’s population and environment.

Birgit Vogel, a technical advisor with the Mekong River Commission, said the outcome highlighted differences in views over the regional direction of economic development. She believes that due to the countries' difference of opinion, it is wise that a decision be made at the ministerial level. "There was the opinion of deferring the project on one side but on the other, Laos said that this deferment was not needed and that the conclusion should be made today." She adds, "the advice from the ministerial meeting is really needed now to come to a conclusion after all."

'Inadequate assessment'

In a statement the Commission said gaps remained in technical knowledge and that there have not been enough studies on the project.

Cambodia called for "a comprehensive study and assessment of trans-boundary and cumulative environmental impacts." It also called for the development of countermeasures and solutions to mitigate the dam’s wider ecological impacts while Thailand pressed for greater public comment.

Millions of people live and work close to the Mekong

Millions of people live and work close to the Mekong



Vietnam, where officials had raised concerns in the media over the dam’s impact on downstream water flow into the lower Mekong Delta region, pointed to the lack of adequate, appropriate and comprehensive assessments.

Environmental costs

Environmentalists have warned the Xayaburi Dam, if built, would lead to the forced resettlement of over 2,100 people and directly affect over 200,000 people. They say the dam’s structure would threaten the extinction of some 40 fish species, including the endangered Mekong giant catfish. Migratory fish species would also be threatened.

Pianporn Deetes, a campaigner with the environmental group International Rivers, says the decision has marked a temporary reprieve given the environmental costs to the region. But Pianporn Deetes says more work needs to be done to fully assess the impact it could have on the region.

The Mekong River is a source of livelihood for many

The Mekong River is a source of livelihood for many



"We agreed with the recommendation made by many countries particularly on the knowledge gap. They need a lot more research and study in order to estimate the trans-boundary impact which has been included in this project." She adds, "they know it needs years of study of the Mekong. So I think it’s very important for Laos to listen to the other countries."

Thai media reports from the weekend revealed that preliminary work has already begun at the site. Pianporn Deetes says the work should be halted. In 2007 Thailand and Laos signed a memorandum of understanding that 95 percent of the electricity produced at the hydro dam will be sold to Thailand, which would be a key source of finance for its construction.

Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Sarah Berning

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