Laos keeps its hydropower hopes alive
Don't dream the Xayaburi hydropower project is over. It's not dead yet, but Laos has a long fight ahead.
Environmentalists and the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are still savouring their victory at the Mekong River Commission Council meeting on Dec 8. They have reason to feel that way because the lower Mekong countries agreed to further assess the likely impacts of the dam project. This time they will ask Japan to undertake the study of the project.
An MRC press release made no mention about the much disputed dam project in Laos, not even a single word. It only contained notes to editors, reminding the media of what they were talking about and press men should not miss the point.
What came out of the ministerial meeting looks impressive. The messages from the chairman and Cambodian Water Resources and Environment Minister Lim Kean Nor were very convincing that the project seems to be going nowhere. "The outcome today demonstrates the member countries' continued commitment to work together in the regional spirit of the Mekong Agreement to bring about economic development without compromising sustainability of livelihoods of their peoples and the ecology," he said.
He was right when he talked about the "regional sprit" of the Mekong countries. But he may be over optimistic about finding a balance between dams and their ecological consequences.
Laos' special relations with Cambodia and Vietnam remain unchanged since the old days when the Indochina region was plagued by war. Their leaders are closer than any other government chiefs in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But when it comes to the dam issue, there is still room for compromise. Even though Laos did not get what it wanted this time, it is too early for Vientiane to throw in the towel and shelve this project for good. The project has come too far for Laos to give up easily.
The agreement to further study the dam constitutes a time-buying tactic for more negotiations among the four countries. As long as the project is not shot down, there is a chance it will go ahead. The message from Laos to the other three countries in the meeting has given an open door for Vientiane to keep on fighting for it.
"In view of the legitimate concerns expressed by some member countries, Lao PDR will continue to work with reputable international experts to review and improve the final design of the Xayaburi HPP (hydropower project). We are convinced that the project will have insignificant trans-boundary impacts on the Mekong River." That was Laos' message to other MRC members in Siem Reap.
What is more important than "further study" is future diplomatic manoeuvring. At least, Laos does not have to worry about Thailand. Most of the 1,260 megawatt electricity will be sold to Thailand under an agreement made with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand in 2010. The developer of the dam is also a Thai firm, Ch Karnchang Plc. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Preecha Reongsomboonsuk has also confirmed Thailand's backing of the project. And as long as the Pheu Thai Party remains in power, the position will be unchanged.
What Thailand is waiting for is to see how Laos convinces Cambodia and Vietnam to give the project a nod of approval. That effort got underway at the end of the MRC meeting two weeks ago when the Lao delegate said that Laos "would like to request all member countries and development partners, your kind understanding and support to Lao PDR in developing sustainable hydropower projects, including the one on the mainstream Mekong River".
A soft approach is not enough. Next will be the bargains and trade-offs which that are acceptable for Phnom Penh and Hanoi. Do not forget that Xayaburi is not the only dam that will be built in the Mekong's lower basin. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have 10 more dams altogether they want to build on the river. They share concerns about ecological impacts and also have a common interest in dam construction. Laos needs other Mekong colleagues to go ahead in exchange for its backing on other projects in the future.
The only stumbling block is united opposition from environmentalists who will fight to let the river flow without any obstructions. The Siem Reap outcome is not the end of the mission.
By Saritdet Marukatat - The Bangkok Post - December 19, 2011