BANGKOK, THAILAND —
This week officials from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand will meet to discuss the impact of planned hydropower dams on the lower Mekong region. But several environmental groups have already concluded the main Xayaburi dam in Laos will devastate communities that depend on the Mekong river for food, and they want to stop the project.
Ahead of this week’s meeting of the Mekong River Commission, 39 international environmental groups called on the government to halt construction on the Xayaburi dam before February 2015. The declaration also called on the government of Thailand to cancel its agreement to buy electricity generated by the dam.
The Xayaburi is the first of 11 proposed dams to be built on the Lower Mekong River. The $3.8 billion, Thai-financed dam is intended primarily to produce electricity for the Thai market. Officials from countries in the region have been regularly meeting to discuss the planned dams, and review assessments of their environmental impact on a river basin that is a critical food source for some 60 million people.
The World Wildlife Fund's Marc Goichot, who is a regional expert on hydropower says more time is still needed to review these projects.
"The Xayaburi project will only contribute about 2% to the demand of Thailand and the demand of Thailand doesn't really need the project until 2026, so there's no rush," said Goichot. "The suspension of this power-purchasing agreement will give time to all parties to study the impact."
Construction has already begun on the Xayaburi dam, despite objections voiced by downstream countries Vietnam and Cambodia. Activists now hope they can stop the project before a coffer dam is built next February, which would divert water to allow construction of the main dam on the riverbed. The World Wildlife Fund says this would be the first step in the construction process to cause major irreversible damage to the river's ecosystem.
The Mekong Agreement, signed by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995, precludes construction from going forward without mutual consent from other governments.
An initial assessment of the environmental impact was said to fall short of international standards, and further impact assessments are ongoing. At the MRC's last summit, the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia requested that construction be halted for 10 years, or until the impact can be accurately assessed.