Cambodia and Vietnam will jointly urge Laos to suspend the controversial Xayaburi dam, a Cambodian official said Tuesday, following reports that the project’s construction is moving ahead despite government pledges to wait for further study.
With the letter, Vietnam will join Cambodia in stepping up its opposition to the U.S. $3.5 billion hydropower project, the first of 11 proposed dams on the mainstream Lower Mekong River.
Te Navuth, secretary general of Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee, said the two countries have agreed that their prime ministers will send a joint letter to urging Laos to allow more time for a comprehensive review of the dam, which has sparked concerns over its environmental impact.
“Its aim is to require Laos to extend the consultation time for the dam and wait for the results of research that show the dam’s [potential] impact on the mainstream Mekong River,” said Te Navuth, secretary general of Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee.
The agreement comes after a meeting between Cambodia’s Minister of Water Resources Lim Kean Hor and Vietnam’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Minh Quan in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
Te Navuth said the letter, expected before the end of July, would also be sent to Thailand, which is providing financial backing for the1,260-megawatt hydropower project and will receive 95 percent of its electricity.
“The letter will be drafted by Vietnam, then signed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and sent to the prime ministers of Laos and Thailand,” he said.
He added that Cambodia and Vietnam had made the decision at a meeting in June between their prime ministers at conference in Vietnam’s Kien Giang province on mutual investment in their countries.
“In Kien Giang, the two governments agreed to write a joint letter from the prime ministers,” Te Navuth said.
Mekong River Commission
As the first dam on the mainstream Lower Mekong, the Xayaburi dam is also the first to undergo a regional review process through the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a four-nation body that manages development along the river and has expressed reservations over the project.
Through the MRC, established in 1995, member countries have agreed to a protocol for consulting with and notifying each other about use of the river’s resources, but the organization has no binding jurisdiction on what Laos does about the dam.
One study commissioned by the group recommended a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.
Cambodia has already lodged its official protest with Laos over the project, warning Lao MRC representatives in a letter in April not to allow the dam to move ahead.
The letter followed earlier threats from Cambodia to take Laos to international court over the dam.
In May, a group of Vietnamese scientists urged Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee to protest the dam directly to the Lao government.
The team of experts from the Vietnam Rivers Network insisted that the dam will directly threaten the livelihoods of around 20 million residents in the Mekong Delta, as well as Vietnam’s national and regional food security, the newspaper said.
In late April, another Vietnamese scientists’ group, the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Association, voiced its concern over the dam, which it also said will threaten regional food security and affect the lives of millions downstream, particularly in the Mekong Delta, the heart of the country’s rice production.
On Tuesday, Lao Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong vowed to stall construction on the dam until all of the neighboring countries’ concerns have been resolved, state media reported.
“The Xayaburi project will develop one of the most transparent and modern dams in the world,” the Vientiane Times quoted him as saying.
However, construction on the project has plowed ahead in recent months.
In late June, after investigating the site, environmental group International Rivers said that construction and resettlement activities on the Xayaburi Dam have been “significant” and contradict claims that only preliminary work has been done on the project.
A member of a Thai NGO associated with International Rivers said that Ch. Karnchang, the Thai developer tasked with construction of the hydropower project, has already begun to build a dam wall where a village used to be. The NGO staff member said that the more than 330 residents from 65 villages had been resettled to a new area.
Controversy over the dam has flared since April, when Ch. Karnchang said it had signed a contract for the project’s construction, even though the MRC had recommended the project be postponed pending further research.
Environmental groups in Thailand and Cambodia have staged protests against the company and a group of Thai banks lending the firm funds to proceed with construction.
The Chiang Rai-based Lower Mekong People’s Network, which represents communities from seven different provinces in Thailand along the Mekong River, plans to file a lawsuit against the company in July.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Laos next week for talks that are expected to focus on the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is aimed at enhancing political cooperation among the four riparian countries.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.