Leading conservation groups on Sunday issued a joint declaration opposing the construction of Laos’ controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam as communities in northeastern Cambodia staged protests on Saturday against the project, which experts say could harm millions of people living downstream.
The joint declaration, signed by 39 environmental groups, comes ahead of this week’s Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit in Ho Chi Minh City during which high-level delegations from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand will address the impact of dam development on the Lower Mekong region.
The Xayaburi dam is the first of 10 proposed dams on the mainstream Lower Mekong River and the Lao government, despite fierce resistance from Cambodia and Vietnam, has pushed ahead with its development, making it a test case for the MRC’s goal of achieving regional consensus before dam-building goes ahead.
“[T]he Xayaburi hydropower project in Lao PDR is one of the potentially most damaging dams currently under construction anywhere in the world” and “constitutes the greatest trans-boundary threat to date to food security, sustainable development and regional cooperation in the Lower Mekong River basin,” the declaration says.
Amid mounting evidence that the dam will cause irreversible damage to biodiversity, fish stocks and human livelihoods, the signatories have set a one-year deadline to achieve a halt on construction so that the MRC’s study on the potential long-term effects of large-scale dams can be completed.
“The Mekong Summit is the critical moment for Cambodia and Vietnam to take a strong stance and make their concerns heard loud and clear before it is too late,” Kraisak Choonhavan, former chairman of Thailand’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said in the statement.
The groups are also calling on Thailand to pressure Laos by pulling out of its agreement to purchase most of the electricity generated by the Xayaburi dam, and asking the consortium of six Thai banks financing its construction to reconsider the effect on their reputations of bankrolling a potentially devastating project.
Laos has also announced that a second mainstream dam, the 256-MW Don Sahong dam—just 1.5 km from the Cambodian border —will also go ahead without regional consultation, despite the fact that studies have shown it threatens the entire ecosystem of the Lower Mainstream Mekong by blocking the only channel in southern Laos that allows year-round fish migration.
Communities Take to the River
On Saturday, more than 200 protesters in Stung Treng province took to the Mekong River in boats to draw attention to the danger the Don Sahong dam presents to local communities and wildlife, such as the critically endangered Mekong River dolphin.
Villagers—including students and local officials—gathered at Preah Romkil pagoda in Thal Borivat district at 8 a.m. and traveled by boat to an area of the river inhabited by the dolphins, according to Vong Kosal, a legal officer for NGO Forum, which last week drafted a petition calling for the immediate halt of the dam.
“We are collecting thumbprints from all participants and will send them to the [Cambodian] government to convey our concerns with the other heads of states at [MRC] summit in Vietnam,” Mr. Kosal said.
A separate protest on Saturday in Kratie province saw another 200 people board 42 boats in Sambor district for a seven-hour journey to raise alarm among communities living along the Mekong River.
“We have prepared an open letter and will send our message to the four countries attending the summit to stop construction of the [Don Sahong] project,” said Sam Sovann, executive director of the Northeastern Rural Development Organization.
Elsewhere, Some 200 ethnic Chong villagers in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley will today submit a petition to the provincial government office as part of an ongoing protest against the imminent construction of the Stung Chhay Areng dam.
Development of the dam by Chinese company Sinohydro (Cambodia) United Ltd., local environmental groups argue, will lead to hundreds of evictions and require the flooding of thousands of hectares of land, including areas of the Cardamom Protected Forest considered sacred to the Chong.
“The villagers want the general public to know that their ancestral land is threatened by the development of this dam,” said Ing Kongcheth, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho.
“They want the dam project canceled—the damage it will cause if it goes ahead is huge.”
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)
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