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Mekong River Commission is striking balance between development and protection 

May 04. 2017
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By Pham Tuan Phan

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A major infrastructure project on the Mekong mainstream, the Pak Beng Hydropower Dam in Oudomxay Province, Laos, is currently undergoing a prior consultation process at the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

The Commission is serious about this process and about producing meaningful engagement and recommendations that will lead to improvements in the project if it proceeds and the overall sustainable development of the basin. 

First, we have to be clear about the mandate and roles of the MRC. The Mekong River Commission is an inter-governmental organisation of member states, created by its members, for its members. Its mandate, established by the 1995 Mekong Agreement, is clear: “To serve as a regional platform for regional cooperation on the management of water-related resources for sustainable development of the Mekong river basin.” The principles underlying cooperation are also clear: cooperative management of the common river resources, sovereign equality and territorial integrity and reasonable and equitable development. 

The MRC is not a regulatory body for the management of water resources. In its 22 years of existence, the MRC has built up an impressive knowledge base, procedures, guidelines and strategies for the Mekong that are the envy of other nations experiencing tensions and disputes over rivers. The five procedures dealing with maintenance of flows, water quality, water use monitoring, data and information sharing, and consultation on infrastructure projects have no equal in other developing basins. 

One of these five procedures, the Prior Consultation (known officially as the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement – PNCPA), provides member countries the opportunity to review impacts of proposed projects on neighbouring countries and agree on mitigating measures. The process offers countries neither a right to veto a project nor a right to proceed with a proposed project  without taking into account other members’ rights and concerns. It is a cooperative approach. The MRC lends both of these aspects equal importance. The MRC agreement and procedures continue to work because member countries are still notifying, consulting and considering views from one another and from broader stakeholders. If we look back at the first regional stakeholder forum on the Pak Beng Hydropower Project, the MRC was documenting stakeholder views and showing how they were being addressed in the Technical Review Report to be submitted to the Joint Committee. 

In its preliminary technical review, the MRC Secretariat experts noted many issues regarding the design and potential adverse impacts of the Pak Beng project, including fish passage, downstream sediment transport, and aquatic habitats. We also noted that the main project documents are only at the feasibility stage, and final design will make improvements, as clarified by the Lao government and the project developer during consultations so far.

Having said that, the PNCPA is a living process with room for improvement and the positive aspects can be built on. 

Xayaburi and Don Sahong

The Xayaburi and Don Sahong hydropower projects were the very first to undergo the prior consultation process and as such represented test cases for MRC hydropower diplomacy. In both cases, information was shared, technical assessments made, discussions and exchanges held, and the developers responded to comments and took into account some of the recommendations. There is value in all of these. However, the MRC’s Joint Committee and Council could not reach a unanimous conclusion and it was eventually referred to the diplomatic processes. Although this was unfortunate, it is still in compliance with the 1995 Agreement. 

Moreover, in the case of Xayaburi, the process did produce changes to the project design, with additional large investments by the Lao government and developer. For Don Sahong, meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visited the hydropower project in January and witnessed firsthand the plan and improvements made, before publicly stating that Cambodia is not opposing the project. Cambodia and Laos have now agreed to implement a joint project on the Khone Falls, on the border with Cambodia, including monitoring of Don Sahong. This shows that despite different opinions, the MRC member countries continue to maintain their dialogue and consult each other about project development, monitoring and benefit sharing. 

These two cases provide invaluable lessons and areas of improvement for the process itself. Equally important is to build on what has worked well. Going forward, the MRC will set up joint monitoring for predicted impacts as per an agreement between all member-countries. This will ensure remedial action can be taken promptly. 

Finally, the PNCPA process is not the ideal place to decide whether a project is good or bad. The MRC has a parallel process called “Basin Development Planning” (BDP) that has produced a number of studies and assessments including the “2011 Assessment of Basin-wide Development Scenarios”. This cumulative impact assessment of the countries’ plans tells us that the planned mainstream dams, including the Xayaburi and Pak Beng hydropower projects, above Vientiane may have less significant impact on the Mekong Delta than the ones planned below. The impacts could not be measured with certainty, though, due to intervening factors such as climate change and other development sectors. “The Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River” (the Council Study) will update the BDP’s findings with the latest data later this year. The findings will support planning, decision-making and implementation of future mainstream development. 

In short, the MRC is committed to its role as a scientific organisation providing objective technical advice as well as the only regional platform for water diplomacy where differences can be managed and resolved. We are committed to improving the process, to engage stakeholders and incorporate their voices, and to develop post-consultation plans that follow up on recommendations, monitoring, information sharing and reporting. 

The MRC is more indispensable than ever and there is no organisation that does what we do. In short, it’s the best deal in town, and all should promote its work. 

Pham Tuan Phan is chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission.  

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