The NGO Forum’s Campaign Against Xayaburi

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Since the beginning of 2011, the Rivers Coalition in Cambodia (RCC), led by the NGO Forum on Cambodia, has worked ceaselessly to demand the cancellation of Xayaburi Dam.  RCC has taken this position because the dam will have severe negative impacts upon Cambodians, especially since the majority of Cambodians depend on fisheries both along the Mekong and the Tonle Sap. The dam would likely increase flooding of forests, agricultural land, and biologically productive wetlands and would capture silt needed to maintain soil fertility downstream and sustain the Mekong Delta.

Further, the dam’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process has been flawed: the Thai developer’s EIA report only considers impacts within the impoundment area and 10 km downstream of the project. According to the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), significant trans-boundary ecosystem and socioeconomic impacts are expected to occur in Cambodia.

Moreover, the costs and benefits of Xayaburi to Mekong countries are seriously unequal.  Whereas Laos and Thailand will gain the most benefits from building the dam, socioeconomic costs will be disproportionately borne by downstream countries, namely Cambodia and Vietnam.

Following the Lao government’s official announcement that it would go ahead with the project despite unanswered objections from Vietnam and Cambodia, RCC undertook a series of steps to formulate and advocate its position. First, RCC members held a strategic discussion in order to identify activities to represent the views from the grassroots to key national and regional stakeholders. Second, at the grassroots level, RCC members distributed information, education and communication (IEC) materials to improve the capacity of the communities to understand how the transboundary impacts of the Xayaburi dam would affect them.  The NGO Forum also organized training and information sessions for RCC members to enable them to learn more about Xayaburi and increase their advocacy capacity.

Partially as a result of these actions, the NGO Forum noticed that some RCC members at the grassroots level, especially those working along the Mekong mainstream river and in the Tonle Sap area, have improved their capacity to work on hydropower advocacy and organize their own advocacy activities. Some of these events drew support from the government and gained the attention of the media. These actions demonstrated improved “ownership” of the issue by RCC NGO members. 

Throughout 2011 and 2012, RCC members organized a series of activities to inform communities of the projected impacts of the dam and to grab the attention of key stakeholders.  Some of the key activities that RCC organized include:

  • A training workshop on the impacts of Xayaburi and 1995 MRC Agreement in Kampong Cham province;
  • Community awareness-raising event on Xayaburi in Kandal province;
  • Joint statement to call for cancellation of Xayaburi dam during the ASEAN People’s Forum;
  • Thumbprint collection from communities living along the Mekong River to call for cancellation of Xayaburi dam;
  • Concerns about the inadequacy of the developer’s EIA report were sent to the MRC and the Prime Ministers of the four member countries.
  • RCC sent a letter to the Cambodia National Mekong Committee (CNMC) to help inform their review of Compagnie Nationale du Rhone’s analysis of the Finnish company Pöyry’s evaluation of whether the project complied with the requirements of the MRC;
  • The Executive Director of the NGO Forum spoke on the Cambodian Television Network (CTN)’s talk show about the impacts of Xayaburi particularly on Cambodia and the project’s progress.
  • A peace walk campaign to stop Xayaburi dam was held in Kampong Cham province.

After hearing about or participating in the numerous advocacy events of RCC and local communities, the Cambodian government’s opposition to the Xayaburi project grew stronger and more adamant. RCC’s events, some of which included government officials, not only helped inform them of the potential harmful and unequal impacts on Cambodia but also empowered them with the information needed to help them  take a stronger stand and speak out more forcefully against the dam. As examples, in April last year, the Cambodian government sent an official letter to the Lao government which called for an immediate halt to the construction of the dam. In June, H.E. Lim Kean Hor, the CNMC Chairman, said that the dam builders still had not conducted an adequate trans-boundary impact assessment and therefore the dam should not be built.  Overall, the relationship between RCC and the government, in particular the CNMC, has improved, especially their willingness to work together with us to oppose the dam.

Unfortunately, despite these strong and well-founded protests, Laos and the Thai dam builders have decided to proceed with the construction of the dam.  In November, the Lao government held a groundbreaking ceremony during which the Deputy Prime Minister misleadingly stated that the government had already addressed the environmental concerns of their downstream neighbors and that Cambodia and Vietnam now support the project.  In reality, because of the abrupt manner in which the Lao government announced its decision to go ahead with the dam, just two days before a hastily organized “groundbreaking ceremony,” Cambodia and Vietnam had little choice but to quietly accept the fait accompli.

The decision of the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments to avoid creating a diplomatic incident by officially protesting the Lao government’s decision did not mean that they had given up the fight against mainstream dams.  Both Cambodia and Vietnam softly raised their concerns during the most recent MRC Council meeting in January of this year.  Cambodia called for further analysis of the cumulative impacts of all of the proposed mainstream dams on the Mekong and for “increasing attention [to these impacts] with practical action from the riparian countries in a more effective framework”. Vietnam stated that the building of Xayaburi “was causing concerns of the Governments of the riparian countries in the region and the international community about its adverse impacts on the downstream areas.”

While the NGO Forum welcomes these statements, it is worried that unless further actions are taken immediately, the construction of Xayaburi will advance and, as the first Mekong mainstream dam, it will set a dangerous precedent. Laos could start building another two dams soon.  While it is not clear what can be done at this stage to dissuade Laos from building the dam, civil society and other key stakeholders, namely the Cambodian and Vietnamese government, should not give up but instead should push forward and keep on advocating against the dam.  Possible options include:

  • Cambodia and Vietnam should take the next available opportunity to publicly state their strong opposition to the dam’s construction until a trans-boundary impact assessment is properly conducted. They should choose words similar to those they used in 2011 and 2012, which were more forceful than those they used in January this year.
  • Cambodia and others should demand that the dam builders reveal the dam’s final design to the Mekong governments and the MRC Secretariat, which can then evaluate whether the dam complies with the MRC’s guidelines on mainstream dams.
  • Cambodia should encourage Vietnam to jointly warn that they are prepared to take Laos to the International Court of Justice for violating the requirements of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Alternatively, they could call for third-party mediation as provided for by Article 35 of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
  • In July last year, Thai PM Yingluck said, “We will study together the scope of the impact along the Mekong and we will see what the impact is.” Cambodia and Vietnam should insist that Yingluck back her words with action. She should call for an immediate construction halt until a complete study of the trans-boundary impacts is conducted by a neutral party, not Poyry, who has a conflict of interest.
  • Another key point that should be stressed to the Thai government is that it does NOT even need this electricity from Xayaburi to meet Thailand’s future energy needs, and therefore this unnecessary investment of $60 billion in Xayaburi should be avoided.
  • If all else fails, Vietnam and Cambodia could seriously consider trade sanctions against Laos unless it ceases construction of the Xayaburi dam pending further impact studies and it defers other projects like the Pak Beng and Don Sahong dams.
  • Further, the EU and other key donor countries could take into account Laos’ decision to opportunistically go ahead with these commercially-driven, unsustainable projects when considering its aid programs and key trade preferences.

While these last two options might seem drastic, the devastating impact of Xayaburi and other planned projects  on the Lower Mekong’s ecosystem and on rural populations downstream raises fundamental questions about Lao’s basic development strategy. Consequently, serious actions such as these are necessary.  RCC will continue to collaborate with the Cambodian government and other key stakeholders to work together to advocate against the construction of Xayaburi as well any other future dams on the Mekong mainstream.

Chhith Sam Ath is the Executive Director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia. Danny Marks is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences. Last year he was the Advisor to the Environment Program of the NGO Forum.

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