PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – When the Lao national assembly last week approved a potentially destructive dam project just 2 kilometers from the border with Cambodia, the surprise announcement was yet another blow to the regional framework designed to protect the Mekong River.
It was not supposed to be this way after Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos signed the 1995 Mekong Agreement, a treaty designed to coordinate development along the river and to mitigate its impacts on neighboring countries.
The agreement established the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that would provide a framework to study and discuss potential impact of proposed projects on the river.
On paper, the 1995 agreement is a bulwark against the kind of ecological and economic impact that environmental groups foresee should the 260-megawatt hydro project go ahead.
In practice, however, it has largely failed on the two occasions it has been tested. In 2010, the Lao government began construction on the Xayaburi Dam before consulting with its neighbors, despite the objections of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Chhit Sam Ath, Cambodia Country Director at World Wide Fund for Nature, says these failures do not bode well for negotiations over the other nine hydro-power projects planned along the river.
“The double precedent of Xayaburi and Don Sahong questions the ability of the Mekong River Commission and its current procedures as a platform to make decisions taking into consideration the interests of all the people living in the Mekong basin,” he said.
While the Xayaburi Dam completely skirted the Mekong River Commission, the Don Sahong Dam has been more closely in line with the MRC’s protocols.
For six months this year, the commission met during “prior consultations” on the project. The developer, Malaysian company Mega First Corporation Berhad, conducted impact assessments on the project and representatives from each country were able to air their concerns during joint meetings.
The negotiations fell apart in July, however, when Vietnam and Cambodia requested further studies amid reports that construction at the dam site was already underway. The Laos government responded by saying that the consultation period was finished. “Laos declared that they had done everything under the Mekong Agreement,” said Te Navuth, Secretary General of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee. “It’s true that they have done something but it’s not sufficient to educate everyone about the potential trans-boundary effects.”
“Normally we should reach an agreement about going ahead or not going ahead with the project. Three countries requested Laos not go ahead and Laos decided unilaterally that they can do the project.”
Cambodia’s Uncertain Opposition
Cambodia and Vietnam have opposed the project because of its potential impact to fish populations downriver, it’s blocking of nutrient-rich sediment and because of concerns about increased water salinity. Although Cambodia has not changed its stance on the dam, the government has remained quiet on the matter since the MRC negotiations fell apart.
Despite the close proximity of the project to the border, the government did not release any statement on this issue after last week’s approval.
In response to credible reports of a ramping up of construction at the dam site in July, a source quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen as saying in a cabinet meeting: “There is no evidence to support this.”
“I have met with Laotian leaders in the recent past and they had assured me that Laos will not build the dam if an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report showed that the construction of this mammoth dam will hurt others on the Mekong.”
For Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator with International Rivers, the lack of an outcry by regional governments is a concerning sign. “It’s not the time to keep quiet,” she said. “ It’s time for the government to take action. The project information has not been adequately disclosed to the public and effected communities. The level of transparency is very low.”
Officially, because the MRC failed to reach an agreement, it is now up to each government to negotiate one-on-one to resolve the issue, but a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that he was unaware of talks with the Lao government. Both the foreign ministry and Ministry of Environment said it was still the responsibility of the Cambodian Mekong Committee.
The commission’s Mr. Navuth countered:“We cannot discuss this. This is a big issue so it’s in the hands of the top leaders.”