Following a meeting of the Mekong River Committee's (MRC) Joint Committee earlier this month in Phnom Penh, the MRC has finally confirmed the start date for prior consultation on the Don Sahong Dam as July 25.
The Don Sahong is a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River in the Siphandone area of Champasak Province, southern Laos. The announcement – or rather lack of announcement – of the consultation process more than two months after it began illustrates just how backwards the process is.
Under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the prior consultation process must be conducted within a six-month timeframe, although an extension is possible if agreed to by the four governments of the countries involved – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The July 25 start date means that the regional consultation process is already nearly half-way complete, despite no official announcement by the MRC.
The “silent” start to the prior consultation process comes amid serious concerns about the legitimacy of the MRC’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process and whether it will really have a bearing on whether the project is allowed to move forward. The sincerity of Laos’ intentions in submitting the project for regional consultation, following months of refusing to do so, has been called into question since the MRC Council meeting in June. During that meeting, the Lao government announced that it would submit the dam for prior consultation and in the same breath announced that itwould continue development of the project. Despite putting forward a public message that it would not start construction while regional consultations are under way, Mega-First Corporation Berhad, the project developer, has also been quick to confirm that construction at the project site is ongoing. Furthermore, it appears negotiations over the project’s engineering, procurement and construction agreement are underway with China’s Sinohydro International.
As the Don Sahong Dam follows the same slippery pathway of the Xayaburi Dam – where agreements and construction helped seal the deal, making it costly and difficult for Laos to make significant changes to the design or reverse its position on the project – the question is whether Laos is genuinely willing to negotiate in good faith with its neighbours.
The rationale behind the prior consultation process is to allow other countries to evaluate and comment on the project, giving them time to carry out “due-diligence” to assess any adverse impacts the project may have on their rights and interests. The intended outcome of the process is for the four governments to arrive at an agreement on how to proceed.
Ame Trandem is Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers.