Mekong commission accused of ignoring own findings on dam impacts

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Promoting decision-making not tantamount to project approval, counters commission

Farmers prepare to plant coconut palm trees in a rice field hit by saline water intrusion in the Mekong Delta's Ben Tre Province. The negative environmental impacts of mainstream dams built on the Lower Mekong River will affect the livelihoods of millions of Vietnamese people dependent on fisheries and agriculture, experts warn.

The Mekong River Commission seems to be acting beyond or even against its brief by encouraging decision-making on a major dam on the lower reaches of the river, critics say.

This, they argue, is tantamount to supporting the commencement of Lower Mekong Mainstream dams, ignoring the MRC's own findings about the severe risks posed by such constructions.

The MRC, which comprises Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, has also bypassed its role as an advisor to regional governments on sustainable use of the precious water source that the livelihoods of millions of households depend on, the critics add.

The Mekong River originates in the Tibetan plateau and flows 4,800 kilometers (2,980 miles) through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before emptying into the East Sea off Vietnam.

China's dam construction upstream the Mekong River (known there as Lancang) has already altered the river flow and impacted downstream communities where no dams have been built yet, according to international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Meanwhile, downstream nations have their own plans to build dams to meet their energy needs, and concerned activists have been calling to defer 12 of them.

"Any dam built (on downstream sections) would cause irreversible changes to the river. By blocking vital fish migration routes and sediment flows, the dams will significantly alter the river's rich biodiversity," said Ame Trandem, the Mekong Campaigner for International Rivers, a US-based NGO which seeks to protect rivers and defend the rights of communities that depend on them.

"This will result in fishery losses, impacting the livelihoods and food security of millions," Trandem said.

Shifting sands

At a meeting held late July in Laos on the Mekong Basin Development Plan, which provides various development option scenarios, the MRC appeared to favor the scenario to build six mainstream dams above Vientiane, Laos over the next five years.

"The [scenario] adds only six mainstream dams above Vientiane... This will not change the water quantity in mainstream or tributaries and thus the planned consumptive water use can proceed," the MRC said in its draft Basin Development Strategy report.

"The countries consider that there may be possibilities to consider [this scenario]... provided that guidelines will be developed that bring localized impacts upstream and downstream of dams specifically into dam project feasibility and assessment procedures, and that strategic studies commence relating to fish passage technology for Mekong conditions and to the future of the Giant Catfish in both natural situations and breeding centers."

This has drawn the ire of critics like the International Rivers Network.

"This recommendation clearly contradicts the findings of the [MRC's] Strategic Environment Assessment, which points to the serious risks these dams pose to the Mekong and its people and the need to defer any decision over the dams for at least another ten years," said Trandem of International Rivers.

The MRC-authored Strategic Environment Assessment's June 2010 Avoidance, Enhancement and Mitigation Assessment report stated that "The decision to go ahead with the mainstream dams should be taken with the knowledge that the loss in biodiversity of the Mekong will be a permanent and irreplaceable global loss and that no adequate compensation can be provided."

The absence of any "real discussion" about the Strategic Environment Assessment at the July meeting in Laos was also noted by critics.

"This was particularly worrisome given the MRC's role to serve as an advisory body to the Lower Mekong countries," Trandem said.

In response, the MRC asserted it had good reason for the approach it has taken.

"It is important to note that the Strategic Environment Assessment [SEA] process is not yet complete. The "˜impact assessment' stage of the SEA and the "˜avoidance, mitigation and enhancement' stage had been the subject of earlier multi-stakeholder workshops in the previous months," said Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC.

The final SEA report will be published by the end of September, Bird added.

Double role

However, Trandem said that by pushing for the start of the regional decision-making procedures on the Xayaburi dam project at the July meeting, the MRC appeared to shed an objective approach.

The 1,260 MW Xayaburi project is located in northern Laos and is currently the most advanced mainstream project planned on the lower reaches of the Mekong.

According to the MRC's 2010 SEA Impact Assessment, the Xayaburi project will inundate 10 villages and displace 2,151 people. It is also likely to impact millions more in the basin.

Bird denied any notions of the MRC adopting double standards.

"Promoting the [regional decision-making procedures on the Xayaburi dam project] is not equivalent to promoting the project itself it is part of a wider and complex process involving national and regional considerations," Bird said.

In July, the Thai developer and the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT) reached a tariff agreement on the Xayaburi project. The agreement was endorsed by the Laotian government.

"The tariff agreement is not a project approval either on the part of the Lao or Thai government, but does demonstrate a certain level of priority in the national planning processes being given to this project," Bird said.

"It is clear therefore that the necessary documentation has been prepared to support a prior consultation process and hence we feel that it would be better to initiate that process soon so that the recommendations emerging from it can be fully taken into account and clarity on the views of the MRC's four member countries can be obtained."

But Trandem countered this by saying the decision on whether or not to approve the Xayaburi dam project should only occur when the Mekong countries are able to make informed decisions.

"The MRC's decision [on] whether or not to initiate the regional decision making procedures should not be driven by the dam developers, but rather be based on having fully assessed and considered the regional implications," Trandem said.

Bird admitted that the MRC, which is based in Laos, had not received any notification for the Xayaburi dam project from the Laotian authorities. The MRC will inform its member states upon receiving relevant information from Laos, he added.

Le Duc Trung, office manager of MRC Vietnam, also confirmed that the commission had not received any official information from the Laotian authorities with regard to the Xayaburi project.

The four member states would convene to discuss the impact of the dam on the Mekong River after being fully informed of project details, Trung said.

But he declined to comment on whether or not the Xayaburi project should commence.

"Unlike other NGOs, I am not in a position to oppose the construction of all dams."

"˜Seriously underestimated'

Experts have repeatedly warned that any Lower Mekong mainstream dam will carry important risks to food security, given its impact on fisheries and agriculture.

It is estimated that the Lower Mekong produces 2.5 to 3 million tons of fish annually. An important part of this production - between 600,000 to 1.4 million tons would be at risk if Lower Mekong mainstream dams were constructed, they added.

"All impacts are incremental," said Marc Goichot, Sustainable Infrastructure Senior Advisor to the World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong Program.

"They will add to the impact of large reservoir dams in the Chinese part of the basin. You cannot look at impact of one hydropower project alone," Goichot said.

"The risk to the Mekong Delta is seriously underestimated in the current draft of the [MRC's] Basin Development Plan Assessment of the Basin-wide Development Scenarios. Impacts to the delta are a concern to millions of Vietnamese, and could significantly affect the agricultural productivity of the delta."

Both Goichot and Trandem concurred that reformed energy planning and a comprehensive energy options assessment is needed in the Mekong region.

"By employing modern and more sustainable energy options, alternatives to the Xayaburi and other destructive projects can be identified and the Mekong can be preserved to allow for the security and continuity of future generations," Trandem said.

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