Laos Pushes Ahead With Mekong Dam Without Consulting Neighbors

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre 4 October 2013

BANGKOK — Laos is to forge ahead with a second hydro power dam on the mainstream Mekong River, side-stepping its commitment to consult its downstream neighbors before starting work.

Laos on Monday notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a consultative body that works with lower basin countries — Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — of its intent to build the 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam, despite calls from foreign donors to consult neighbors that face a risk of depleted fish stocks and damaged livelihoods.

The four countries are bound by a treaty to hold inter-governmental consultations before building any dams.

“This is a shared river and the dam will bring devastation to Laos’ neighbors … they should demand that Laos undergo the consultation process,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers, said in an interview.

Officials from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam were not immediately available for comment.

The three countries have repeatedly voiced concern about Laos failing to honor a consultation agreement on a bigger project, the $3.5 billion, 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam, for which it held a groundbreaking ceremony late last year.

Thai builder Ch Karnchang PCL started construction of that dam prior to conclusion of talks and studies. Laos long maintained the building was only preparatory work.

Laos is one of Asia’s poorest countries, but it has big ambitions and wants to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” through power exports from its dams, mostly to Thailand.

The Don Sahong Dam, to be developed by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Bhd, is the second of 11 dams planned by Laos along its stretch of the 4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong. Construction is expected to begin next month at a site 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Cambodian border. It was unclear what the financial cost of the dam would be.

Representatives from 10 of the MRC’s international donors, including the European Union, Japan and the United States, had asked Laos to submit the project for consultation in June.

Hans Guttman, of the MRC secretariat, said Laos had “indicated its willingness” to talk if its neighbors were concerned.

Commercial operation for Don Sahong is set to start in May 2018. Energy generated will be sold to Laos’ national power utility, Electricite du Laos, to supply domestic energy needs, according to a statement by the MRC.

Activists believe the dam could cause flooding and threaten food security in Cambodia and Vietnam.

“It’s irresponsible to proceed without carrying out a credible trans-boundary impact assessment. The Don Sahong Dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a flood crisis,” said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum Cambodia.