Bangkok — Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.
In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.
The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia -- all members of the commission -- participated in the meeting.
The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.
"Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing" construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission's chief executive officer, told reporters.
Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.
The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting.
Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.
Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory.
The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.
Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream.
Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong would transform the river, the world's second-most biodiverse stream after the Amazon, "into a giant freshwater pond."
"That would be the end of the Mekong River," he said.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed.
"Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely," Trandem told UCAnews.com.
Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an "empty political statement."
"All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place," she said.