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No Cambodian Push on Laos Dam at Upcoming Meeting

A fisherman works near the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Paksey, northern Laos, file photo.
A fisherman works near the site of the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Paksey, northern Laos, file photo.
PHNOM PENH - Cambodian officials say they will not push to have a controversial dam in Laos put on the agenda for an upcoming meeting among Mekong River countries this week.

Construction of the Xayaburi dam is a concern because it could severely impact the fish populations downriver, and opponents say more studies are needed before it is built.

An annual meeting of the Mekong River Commission, which includes representatives of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam will be held in Laos on Jan. 17.

Officials say they are likely to discuss the dam, but Cambodia is not actively seeking its inclusion on the agenda.

That’s because there is no consensus among the Mekong River Commission countries over the Xayaburi dam, Sin Niny, deputy permanent secretary for the Cambodia Mekong Committee, told VOA Khmer in an interview.

“All tasks within the MRC’s framework must be unanimously agreed upon,” he said. “If the Xayaburi issue is raised while any member country disagrees, the issue will not be included on the agenda.”

Cambodia is still considering the impact of Mekong dam projects, including the dam in Laos’ Xayaburi province, he said.

The Xayaburi dam, which is being proposed with investment from a Thai company, would produce an estimated 1,285 megawatts of power. The total investment is expected to be nearly $3.5 billion.

Cambodia and Vietnam both oppose the dam’s construction, because a full assessment of its impact on their portions of the Mekong River has not been conducted. Opponents say that any dam built across the Mekong will have an effect on the rich fish populations of the river that are a staple for millions of Cambodians.

Surasak Glahan, a spokesman for the Mekong River Commission, told VOA Khmer from Vientiane that the exclusion of the dam from the official agenda does not mean it won’t be addressed at this week’s summit.

“There’s still room for all the countries or participants to raise certain topics on particular issues if they wish to,” he said.

However, Aviva Imhof, a campaign director for at International Rivers, an advocacy group, said the exclusion of the Xayaburi dam on the official agenda was a “big concern.”

This week’s MRC summit is the first time all parties have met at once since December 2011, when it was decided the Xayaburi dam project should be put on hold to await further impact studies, she said.

In the time since, construction has reportedly gone ahead anyway, she said. “Xayaburi keeps moving forward without being discussed at the MRC level. It’s a very poor precedent [for] the future.”

The dam’s potential impacts remain a concern for many parties.

According to an International Rivers study, the Xayaburi dam would relocate some 2,100 people and would directly affect another 202,000 people living nearby. The dam and its construction could impact water quality, ecosystems and fisheries and could jeopardize food security for millions of people, International Rivers says.

The Finnish government has been investigating one of its country’s companies, Poyri, for allegedly providing a sub-standard environmental impact assessment of the Xayaburi dam for the government of Laos.

The US remains concerned that construction on the dam has gone forward without a proper assessment, US Embassy spokesman John Simmons said in an e-mail.

“We hope that the government of Laos will uphold its pledge to work with its neighbors in addressing remaining questions regarding Xayaburi. We encourage the MRC countries to continue to work together to realize their shared vision of an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River basin.”

The Asian Development Bank too is concerned the dam is moving ahead too quickly.

“The ADB believes that given potential risks, further in-depth studies need to be undertaken to get a better understanding of the impacts,” a spokeswoman for the bank, Ros Sothea, said.

Surasak Glahan said a Japan-led impact study will be discussed at the upcoming summit.