Ministers from four southeast Asian countries began a three-day meeting today aimed at deciding the future of a controversial dam project on the region’s major waterway.
If construction of the Xayaburi dam in Laos on the Mekong river proceeds, environmental groups say, the prospects for fishing and rice production in a large area of southeast Asia will be in danger.
The meeting in Siem Reap of the Mekong River Commission pits Laos and Thailand against fellow members Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the US Senate, which last week called for funding for the US$3.5 billion project to be suspended.
Landlocked Laos wants the dam to produce 1,280 megawatts of electricity, nearly all of which it plans to sell to Thailand.
But environmentalists say the effect of the dam would be low water levels downstream which would put a question mark over the efficiency of rice fields throughout the Mekong Delta and especially in Vietnam.
The project would, say experts, render Cambodia vulnerable to the dam’s impact because the local diet is so reliant on fish.
Officials from Cambodia and Vietnam back the environmentalists and claim fish stocks will be severely depleted.
On November 30, the US Senate unanimously approved a non-binding resolution calling on US financial institutions to suspend financial support to environmentally questionable projects on the Mekong River, including the planned Xayaburi project.
The resolution said “significant economic and strategic interests” could be “jeopardized if the construction of mainstream dams places the region’s stability at risk.”
US-based International Rivers (IR) said: “If Xayaburi is approved, it could open the flood gates for all eleven dams to go forward, with tragic consequences for the Mekong River and its people.”
IR called for any decision to be deferred for at least 10 years” in order to undertake a more detailed environmental impact assessment than the one currently being used which “revealed critical flaws and knowledge gaps in understanding the impacts of the project on the river’s ecosystem and people.”
IR further accused Laos of being “determined to move ahead with the project, defying its neighbors by starting illegal initial construction at the dam site.”
Only Thailand and Laos support adoption of the project.