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Mighty Mekong Gets a Reprieve: Destructive Xayaburi Dam Delayed

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In a crucial decision for the people and ecosystems of the Mekong River Basin, the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have just agreed to delay the Xayaburi Dam, the first of eleven dams proposed for the Mekong River. They agreed to first commission further studies on the impacts of the proposed Mekong mainstream dams. This brings a much-needed reprieve to the threatened river, which has so far not been dammed south of the Chinese border. The Mekong boasts the world's largest inland fisheries, and forms the heart and soul of mainland Southeast Asia.

Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee told reporters: "When the four member countries agreed to conduct a further study, this meant the construction would not start until we have a clear result." No timetable for the delay was announced. Japan and other international donors will be asked to assist in conducting the studies.

The decision was a huge relief for my colleagues in International Rivers' Mekong team. "Today the Mekong governments responded to the will of the people of the region. We welcome the recognition that not nearly enough is known about the impacts of mainstream dams to be able to make a decision about the Xayaburi Dam," said Ame Trandem, our Southeast Asia program director. "In line with today's important decision, we expect that construction on the Xayaburi Dam will immediately stop, and ask the governments to provide a clear timeline and open consultation process for the studies."

"The Mekong governments made the right decision today, but it is only the beginning," commented Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh of Vietnam Rivers Network. "The governments need to take further steps to make their joint commitment a reality. They should commit not to pursue any mainstream dams until further studies are complete and meaningful public consultation occurs. We hope the Lao government will act in good faith and immediately halt all construction activities at the dam site and withdraw all construction equipment."

The agreement to delay the Xayaburi Dam and conduct further studies was confirmed at a meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council today in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The agreement was reportedly first made by the four prime ministers of the MRC Member Countries on the sidelines of the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia in November 2011.

"Ultimately the only responsible solution is to cancel the Xayaburi Dam and other dams planned for the Mekong River. We are confident that scientific studies on the Xayaburi Dam's impacts, conducted in a transparent, participatory, and independent manner, will reach the same conclusion," said Mr. Teerapong Pomun, director of Living River Siam, a Thai NGO working to protect rivers and people.

The decision builds on the outcomes of a meeting of the four governments last April, when Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam called for further studies of the project's transboundary impacts and public consultations before deciding on the dam. At that time, Vietnam also called for a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams in line with the recommendations of a 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment prepared for the Mekong River Commission.

"While the governments have agreed to a delay, they will eventually need to make a final decision on whether to proceed with the dam," said Mr. Chhith Sam Ath, Executive Director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia. "We believe that scientific evidence and the voices of the people must be taken into account in any further decisions. Alternative energy options exist that are cheaper and cleaner than these dams. The Mekong governments have succeeded at this first test of regional cooperation, but we cannot stop and rest yet."

A study released this week demonstrated that power from Xayaburi and other mainstream dams was not needed to meet Thailand's energy demand, and that cheaper and cleaner options exist that would lower electricity bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Xayaburi Dam and the other dams proposed for the Mekong River have come under intense local and international scrutiny in the past year. Numerous scientific studies have warned about the potentially harmful impacts of these projects to the region's fisheries, farmers, and local communities. Nevertheless, between April and December, Laos proceeded with preliminary construction and Thailand pursued agreements to purchase 95 percent of the dam's electricity.

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