By Viraphonh Viravong
Environmental activists are once again lashing out at the Lao government and the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) in the hope that hydropower projects on the Mekong will be delayed or cancelled.
In a September 10 letter to the leaders of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, activists complained that Laos was acting irresponsibly and that the MRC’s procedures for assessing potential impacts of hydropower development on the Mekong were inadequate.
Earlier this year, many of the same activists lambasted the Laos government for submitting a proposal for the 260-megawatt Don Sahong Hydropower Project to MRC members under the Notification process rather than Prior Consultation procedures under the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Then, in July, in response to member-country concerns, the Laos government agreed to open the Don Sahong project to the more formal Prior Consultation process.
Now, the activists are attacking the MRC and the Prior Consultation process itself. They say the procedures aren’t good enough and the time allotted isn’t long enough. They are demanding more studies and empowerment of carefully chosen “local communities” where anti-dam voices express fear of development.
We wholeheartedly believe that consultation with member countries and development partners can identify further options to improve the design of the Don Sahong dam. This was the case with the first project Laos submitted under the Notifcation, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process – the Xayaburi Hydropower Dam in northern Laos.
Activists blithely dismiss the prior consultation process for Xayaburi as a failure, in part because the MRC’s technical review found that the run-of-river scheme would not have any significant impact on the Mekong’s flow and water quality.
We see the Xayaburi PC as an unqualified success. The process prompted a more careful assessment of possible impacts, a review of measures to avoid, mitigate and minimise these impacts, and ultimately the redesign of the project. In the end, changes to the initial project design addressed potential impacts on the sediment flux, fisheries potential, fish migration and passage and navigation.
It seems that what the activists really want is for the MRC to prevent Laos from building dams on the Mekong. Unfortunately this is not something the MRC can do. The Procedures for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement set forth in the 1995 Agreement are not a mechanism for approving or rejecting any particular project. The MRC is not a building permits office.
Laos and the developer of the Don Sahong project have had the ecology of the Khone Falls area under study by experts for the past eight years. A dozen technical and engineering studies, environmental and social impact studies and fisheries studies are posted on the Don Sahong website www.dshpp.com. These studies suggest there will be no significant impacts to the Mekong’s water flow or quality.
The developers have already begun to address the single-most important environmental issue: dry-season fish migration. With local residents and authorities, they are improving the braids of the Mekong that surround the project site. They have begun to educate local communities about fisheries conservation and new economic opportunities in fish farming. There is every reason to believe there will be more fish in the region in the future, not less.
Laos remains strongly committed to its obligations under the Mekong Agreement during the stipulated six-month PC process. However, during this period, work on roads and a bridge leading to the Don Sahong dam site will continue, as preparatory infrastructure is not a use of Mekong water and not under the purview of the 1995 Agreement.
And while NGOs clamour for a transboundary assessment, the Lao government has already asked the MRC secretariat to set up a joint monitoring team to assess the progress of the Don Sahong project. This goes beyond the scope of prior consultation to ensure continued cross-border cooperation.
Environmental activists are grousing about the MRC consultation process because they are not interested in furthering technical exchange that could identify, minimise and mitigate potential environmental impacts. They are simply out to stop development of hydropower on the Mekong.
By now, they should realise that the Lao government will not be deterred from its commitment to develop clean, renewable hydropower, a source of national pride for the Lao people and a sustainable, reliable source of electricity for the region.
Viraphonh Viravong is Laos’ vice minister of Energy and Mines.