Countries around the lower Mekong have failed to reach a consensus on a controversial proposal that could see Laos build the first hydropower dam on this part of the vital river.

Instead, representatives from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam agreed to consult with their respective governments on how to proceed. However, the final decision still rests with Laos, meaning the South-east Asian country’s divisive proposal to dam a stretch of the Mekong in northern Laos could well push forward regardless of opposition from its neighbours or environmentalists.

A meeting in Vientiane Tuesday was to have marked the end of a mandatory six-month consultation process involving Laos and its neighbours. Under the multilateral Mekong River Commission, which the four countries formed in 1995 as a means of promoting sustainable development on the shared waterway, any country building projects on the mainstream river must hold consultations in affected countries.

The issue has exposed rifts between Laos and Vietnam, traditionally close allies. Vietnamese officials have warned that the dam, planned for Xayaburi province in northern Laos, could have significant impacts downstream.

In a statement issued by the MRC following Tuesday’s meeting, Vietnamese officials said they had “deep and serious concerns” about the project. Le Duc Trung, director general of Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee, said Laos’ assessments of the dam’s far-reaching effects have been inadequate. He called for all dam proposals for the lower Mekong, including Xayaburi, to be shelved for 10 years.

In their official responses, both Cambodia and Thailand called for the current consultation process to be extended. Cambodia said there was a need to study how mainstream dams would affect the environment beyond Laos’ borders and that mitigation measures needed to be more clearly developed.

Though it stands to be on the receiving end of the power the 1260-megawatt Xayaburi project would generate, Thailand said the six-month consultation process has been insufficient and that it was worried how people who depend on the river will be affected.

Laos itself argued against formally extending the consultation process, saying that any new studies would take much longer than six months.

In a statement released by the MRC, Lao officials suggested the project would comply with MRC’s design guidelines and conform to international standards.

“Major impacts on navigation, fish passage, sediment, water quality and aquatic ecology and dam safety can be mitigated at acceptable levels,” the statement read.

However, a series of reports have called such assurances into question.

Unanswered questions

Several expert working groups the MRC put together to examine the Xayaburi proposal have highlighted problems with elements of the plan.

An MRC summary of the concerns noted that the current project design does not in fact meet international best practices or even the MRC’s own guidelines for water quality and ecosystem health.

And a loss of sediment caused by the dam’s reservoir, the report stated, could see it lose 60 per cent of its capacity solely due to sedimentation within 30 years. The Laos government has awarded a 29-year concession to a Thai firm to build and operate the dam. That means the dam’s production could be significantly reduced by the time Lao authorities take control.

An analysis released by the conservation group WWF this month called Laos’ original environmental impact assessment and feasibility study for the project “substandard”.

The analysis said the EIA only identified five migratory species in the Mekong when there are more than 200 species that use parts of the river for their spawning grounds, including 70 migratory species.

The EIA also doesn’t take into account how the loss of fish abundance will affect communities living downstream of the dam, the analysis stated. And the project’s proposed “fish passage facilities” – mitigation measures meant to ensure species can bypass the dam on their migratory routes – meet only four out of 30 of the MRC’s basic design guidelines for the lower Mekong region.

“The gaps of the assessment lead to the conclusion that the Xayaburi EIA does not meet the international standards for environmental impact assessments,” the WWF analysis stated. “The Xayaburi EIA does not answer questions about the nature, magnitude and extent of possible impacts of the project, or concludes without evidence that these impacts would be insignificant.”

A reprieve?

The MRC has not specified a new timeframe for reaching a final decision. But conservationists campaigning against the proposed dam nonetheless welcomed Tuesday’s non-decision.

“Today the Mekong River has gotten a much-needed but temporary reprieve,” Ame Trandem, the Mekong campaigner for the group International Rivers, said in a statement.

“The Mekong River is a valuable shared resource and the Xayaburi dam’s trans-boundary impacts require agreement between the region’s governments and the public.”

But even though the six-month consultation that was to have ended Tuesday was mandatory, it is not legally binding. That means Laos could still proceed with its plans for the Xayaburi dam even if its neighbours are vehemently opposed.

An MRC spokeswoman said the issue must now be put before the MRC council, the commission's highest-level body, which meets once a year. Its next scheduled meeting is not until October or November, she said. And there are no guidelines stipulating that Laos cannot begin construction of the dam before then.

Already this week, media reports suggested Lao authorities have already begun construction around the dam site, even though the consultation process was still underway. The Bangkok Post reported observing major roads to the area under construction as well as villagers who were anticipating relocating to make way for the dam.

The planned Xayaburi project is the first of 11 dams Mekong countries have proposed for the lower portion of the river, which winds its way from China’s Yunan province, alongside Burma and Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia before emptying into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

A version of this story was first published by the IPS.