The topic of Laos's controversial Xayaburi dam yesterday warmed up an international conference here on transboundary river management as dozens of Mekong residents and conservationists demanded a halt to its construction.
They called on governments in the Lower Mekong basin - Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - to immediately address the ambiguities that have left the future of Xayaburi dam and other projects in mainstream Mekong unanswered.
The group representing residents of eight Thai provinces along the river, from Chiang Rai to Ubon Ratchathani, was allowed to get into the conference venue and have a brief meeting with Mekong River Commission (MRC)'s chief executive officer Hans Guttman.
Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, told Guttman that the local residents would have no choice but to shut down the Mekong Friendship bridges between Thailand and Laos if the MRC failed to comply with its own regulations to force Laos to halt the project construction.
The 1995 agreement to establish the MRC required members to notify and consult other members if it wanted to utilise water from the mainstream - but such a pact had no jurisdiction over the decision of a sovereign state.
Guttman told them that the MRC would coordinate with member countries to convey to them the concerns of local people. Indeed the Laos government has not made a final decision on the dam, he said. Work at the site, such as a road, was now just in preparation and there was no construction going on in the river, he said.
Laos has proposed building the Xayaburi Dam on mainstream Mekong approximately 150 kilometres downstream from Luang Prabang. The 1,260MW electricity generated would mostly be exported to Thailand.
Conservationists said the dam would block the migration of fish and many endangered species in the Mekong River and could affect fisheries and the livelihood of local residents. Downstream countries like Cambodia and Vietnam are also worried about the negative impact of the dam would have on their food production.
The MRC ministerial council at their meeting in Seam Reap last December decided to delay the project and asked for a comprehensive study of dam construction planned for the Mekong mainstream.
The study would begin this year and provide information on its findings every year, according to Guttman. In particular, the MRC needs details of the impact on fish migration and navigation in the Mekong if dams are built in the mainstream, he said.
Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang, however, announced last month that it had signed a Bt51.8-billion construction contract with Xayaburi Power, the company that holds a concession from the Lao authorities.
Meanwhile, Natural Resource and Environment Minister Preecha Rengsomboonsuk said Thailand would take into account local people's concerns and seek a proper solution for the matter.
Laos has guaranteed several times in MRC meetings that its study indicated that the Xayaburi dam would cause no serious damage to communities or the environment, he said.
"If there was any damage [likely], they would not build the dam," Preecha said.
Laos Vice-Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong yesterday declined to comment on the issue.
More than 300 river managers, leaders and other stakeholders from around the world are participating in a three-day conference in Phuket to discuss ways transboundary rivers can meet growing food, water and energy needs while minimising negative consequences. The summit kicked off yesterday.
They gave no specific answer to the Xayaburi dam question, but plan to discuss the issue at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro next month.