Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 16:53 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 16:53 | SYDNEY

Laos Mekong dam on hold, for now

11 May 2011 12:06

At a Mekong River Commission (MRC) meeting on 19 April in Phnom Penh, Cambodian and Vietnamese officials recorded their Governments' firm opposition the Xayaburi dam the Lao Government has proposed building on the Mekong's mainstream between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. This was followed by sharp rejections of the dam from the prime ministers of their two countries, Hun Sen and Nguyen Tan Dung.

Thailand's position in relation to the dam was less clear-cut, but its representatives also indicated their concerns about its likely effect on downstream countries.

The first of eleven projected hydropower dams on the Mekong downstream of China, Xayaburi would, if built, be constructed by the major Thai construction company, CH Kamchang, and be financed by Thai banks (this proposed dam and opposition to it has been discussed in several of my previous posts and in my Lowy Paper, The Mekong: River Under Threat.)

In principle, no decision about the controversial dam will now be made until a meeting of the MRC's Ministerial Council in October. Professor Phil Hirsch of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney has summarised the situation as it now stands in a detailed article in the Bangkok Post.

Initially, it seemed possible the government in Vientiane was ready to proceed with construction of the Xayaburi dam in defiance of its fellow MRC members' opposition, and this was certainly the impression CH Kamchang was ready to give.

But now Laos has stated that it will undertake a review of the arguments which have been put forward against the dam's construction. Just how long such a review will take is unclear. Meanwhile, at least one Thai bank has indicated it will not continue to offer funds for the project.

It is difficult not to conclude that Vietnam's opposition to the dam has weighed heavily in the balance of Vientiane's decision to review the arguments against Xayaburi. And this appears to be confirmed by a news release emerging from the ASEAN meeting in Jakarta over last weekend in which the Vietnamese prime minister praised Laos for its decision to suspend the Xayaburi project.

As reported by the southern Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien (Youth), Prime Minister Dung 'said the decision to halt the project reflected the cooperation and deep consideration that Laos has given to Vietnam's proposal'. This might well represent a Vietnamese gloss on the situation, as there are good reasons for thinking that the Lao government still harbours a strong desire to build Xayaburi, as well as some of the other six dams it has contemplated.

If the Xayaburi project is abandoned, this will represent a triumph for the opposition that has come from a wide range of academics, NGOs and grass roots movements in Thailand, as well as increasingly vocally from Vietnam.

But many questions still remain about future plans for dams on the Mekong in both Lao and Cambodia. Not least, it is far from clear whether Hun Sen's opposition to Xayaburi will be matched by a readiness to review, and possibly abandon, his own plans for Mekong dams, particularly one at Sambor, which he has previously firmly supported.

For the moment, suspension of the Xayaburi project removes a divisive issue that could further complicate relations within ASEAN at a time when Cambodia and Thailand show no signs of finding a satisfactory modus vivendi in relation to their border problems linked to Preah Vihear.

But if, contrary to current estimates, Laos moves to build the Xayaburi dam, this will most certainly represent a further reason for doubting the capacity of ASEAN to manage disputes among its members.

Photo by Flickr user WazauWynn.