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Future of the Mekong in the balance on Friday
Laos must open consultation on the Don Sahong dam to all stakeholders
Last year Lao authorities informed the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that they were building the 260-megawatt capacity Don Sahong Dam in Champasak province's Khong district. The site is a five-kilometre stretch of the Hou Sahong, a braided channel of the Mekong two kilometres upstream of the Cambodian border. The dam will be 30 metres high and span the 100-metre width of the channel.
Concern has rippled among the millions who live along the river's banks and depend on it for their livelihood because the dam could block fish migration up and downstream and prevent sediment - a major source of fertiliser - from moving downstream.
In June Laos agreed to a process of "prior consultation" on the dam with neighbouring countries in the lower Mekong basin.
Prior consultation is one of a number of requirements under the 1995 Mekong Agreement that aims to promote cooperation in sustainable management of water resources and prevent regional disputes. The consultation process prevents a country from going ahead with a project without first taking its neighbours' concerns into account, though it allow no member country the right to veto a project.
In the latest stage of the process for the Don Sahong project, the MRC will hold a regional public consultation on Friday in Pakse, in southern Laos.
The meeting will be an opportunity, says the MRC, for community activists, government and non-governmental organisations, research institutes and regional and international organisations to find out more and to discuss and share their concerns.
Feedback and recommendations from the meeting, plus other information to aid its evaluation of the project, will be presented to the MRC Joint Committee, a governing body comprising senior government officials from member countries Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Pakse meeting marks the second time the MRC, founded in 1995, has undertaken prior consultation, following a similar process in 2010 for the 1260MW Xayaburi Hydropower Project on the Mekong mainstream, 150km downstream of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
However, prior consultation is not a process to seek approval for the proposed project, but rather a formal forum for stakeholders to raise concerns about potential impact.
Whatever concerns are raised, the Lao authorities retain the right to go ahead with the project without making concessions.
However, as a responsible member of the MRC, Laos must open Friday's forum to all stakeholders in the Mekong basin so that they can raise concerns and provide information that will give as accurate a picture as possible of both the dam's potential benefits and its negative impact.
Only if Laos respects the consultation process by making it inclusive, comprehensive and cohesive will stakeholders, including those whose livelihoods depend on the river, be satisfied enough to let Vientiane make the final decision on the dam.
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