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River agency needs teeth to do its job

Oct 07. 2013
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By The Nation

The Mekong River Commission seems powerless to prevent member-countries building dams that could damage the environment and people's ways of life
The four member-countries and the Secretariat of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) need to review their 1995 Mekong Agreement to determine whether its rules are effective enough to deal with the increasing number of proposals from members to build dams on the Mekong mainstream.
The latest notification from Vientiane – that it will go ahead with its Don Sahong Dam in Siphandon – serves notice that the commission must seriously consider whether its rules can prevent the potentially serious trans-boundary effects of dam construction.
Building dams in Laos affects neighbouring countries too. At risk is the environment and ecological balance in the entire Mekong basin. Don Sahong is not the only project on the Mekong mainstream in Laos. The Xayaburi Dam in the north of the country has already generated much controversy and opposition. Other member-countries also have their own projects on the river. 
On September 30 the Lao authorities informed the commission that the Don Sahong hydropower project in Khong district of Champasak province would go ahead. The dam is on the five-kilometre-long Hou Sahong, a channel of the Mekong River two kilometres upstream from the Cambodian border. It will be 30 metres high and span the 100-metre-wide downstream end of the channel. Vientiane provided what it says is a complete technical feasibility study, including social and environmental-impact assessments and a fisheries study, which will be shared with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the secretariat. 
The question is whether this report is enough to guarantee and prevent severe damage to the environment and communities in the lower Mekong basin and downstream Cambodia and Vietnam, where millions of people rely on the river for fishing and agriculture. 
Laos says the notification was made in accordance with the MRC’s Procedures and Prior Consultation and Agreement, and the secretariat can do nothing more than process the proposal. 
The notification process is one of three prerequisites for developing different types of water-use projects in the lower Mekong. Notification is required for year-round, intra-basin water-use projects and inter-basin diversion projects on the tributaries, and for wet-season water use on the mainstream. Information from the process helps member-countries plan other water-use projects. 
The other two processes are prior consultation and agreement. Prior consultation applies to proposed projects on the mainstream in the dry season, diversion of water from the mainstream to other basins during the wet season, and diversion of surplus water to other basins in the dry season. 
The notification and prior-consultation processes allow no authority to stop the project, even if there are concerns about social and environmental impacts.
The 1995 agreement sets only one condition that empowers the commission’s members to make decisions regarding projects on the river, and that is for projects diverting water from the mainstream to other basins in the dry season. This type of project needs the agreement of all members before construction begins. 
The Don Sahong, a run-of-the river dam for electricity generation, does not require the agreement of all member-countries. It requires only notification and prior consultation, so it can go ahead after passing through the formalities. 
The MRC needs to rethink its process for discussing and agreeing to projects on the Mekong that could have serious effects on the environment and people’s livelihoods. 

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