Vientiane Times, February 04, 2013
Laos met the requirements of the 1995 Mekong Agreement before making the decision to start construction of the Xayaboury hydropower project on the Mekong mainstream, a top government official has said.
“Environmental activists continue to assert that Laos violated the Mekong Agreement in regards to the Xayaboury project, but we have fully complied with all the rules and satisfied the immediate concerns of our neighbours,” Lao National Mekong Committee Vice Chairman Mr Viraphonh Viravong said in an exclusive interview with Vientiane Times.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin does not require a government to reach consensus with other governments as to whether a project will proceed, Mr Viraphonh said.
The carefully formulated procedures of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), aimed at resolving any difference or dispute between two or more parties, required Laos to undertake prior consultation, which it did. The MRC itself supervised the prior consultation process – the first in its history.
“Our understanding, based on what respected international law firms have advised, is that the process requires only consultation, not agreement,” stressed Mr Viraphonh, who is Laos’ Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines.
“In claiming that Laos did not reach agreement with its neighbours, environmental activists have misunderstood or misstated the intent of the prior consultation process,” he said. “We wonder why they continue to stir controversy when the member countries themselves are not opposed to sustainable development along the mainstream.”
Among the guiding principles of the MRC procedures is respect for “sovereign equality and territory integrity”. Each riparian country that wants to use water may do so if it consults other riparian members before taking any action on the Mekong mainstream. The 1995 Agreement states clearly that the prior consultation process does not include the right to veto the use of water.
“Laos has been called out for not providing other governments with an opportunity to evaluate the project’s transboundary impacts, yet we have done so,” the Deputy Minister said.
After reviewing the extensive information provided under the consultation process, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia raised certain questions, to which Laos responded with additional information, he said.
In fact, Laos submitted extensive information to the MRC Secretariat for distribution to member countries, and under the terms of the consultation process those countries had an exten ded period in which to raise questions, argue, and seek further information – which they did.
During the process, the Lao government engaged in its own form of shuttle diplomacy, responding to and answering every inquiry it received through the MRC Secretariat or from member countries, providing further information – and ultimately making costly changes to the project’s design.
Acting responsibly, Laos engaged Pöyry AG, an internationally renowned consulting firm, which performed an exhaustive study of the project; recommended changes, which Laos agreed to implement; and concluded that with those changes, the project had negligible transboundary impact.
Not yet done, Laos hired another acclaimed consulting firm, Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, and it, too, gave the green light to the project.
The Deputy Minister noted that if other countries were not satisfied with Laos’ cooperation and response by now, they could have asked for the moratorium of the Xayaboury project during the meeting in Luang Prabang, but they did not.
Mr Viraphonh added: “Having satisfied requests from our neighbours and all MRC requirements, we are proceeding with sustainable, environmentally sound hydropower development. The government of Laos has the right to act in the best interests of its people.”