By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Experts warned yesterday that it was really an uphill task to conduct a transboundary Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) in the Lower Mekong basin to address the consequences of a project in one country that might affect another.
Most development projects in the Lower Mekong basin countries – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – have transboundary implications and a significant impact on the environment. Hydropower projects might generate more energy for one country, but they could have a negative impact such as a massive reduction in fish stocks or a deterioration in the environment in another country, Mekong River Commission (MRC)’s environmental governance specialist Nguyen Van Duyen said.
MRC members have their own environment impact assessment laws, but these regulations do not require that transboundary impacts also be addressed, he explained.
Besides, transboundary environmental impact assessments could ignite conflicts among members. For instance, Laos is currently caught in a dispute with Cambodia and Vietnam over the Xayaburi dam, which will be constructed in mainstream Mekong. The two downstream countries want the hydropower project to be halted. Though the MRC facilitated a process to establish a framework for conducting transboundary EIA in 2004, little progress has been made on the issue since then, Duyen told an international conference on transboundary river management in Phuket yesterday.
According to the framework, projects requiring transboundary EIA include hydropower, irrigation, port and river works, industrial and mining projects, aquaculture, navigation and water supply projects, Duyen said.
He added that transboundary EIA should focus on public participation and be accessible to those who might be potentially affected. If a transboundary EIA for Lower Mekong basin is conducted, then it could supplement MRC procedures for notification, prior consultation and agreement, he said. However, he said, little progress had been made in establishing a framework because each country’s laws and regulations on EIA are different, he said.
Some members have proposed that the transboundary EIA framework for the Lower Mekong basin should be a non-binding technical guideline for development projects in member countries. Timo Koivurova, research professor of the Northern Institute for Environment and Minority Law at University of Lapland, suggested that countries in the Mekong basin sign the 1991 Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, which is widely known as Espoo.
Though the Espoo is a regional convention meant mostly for Europe, it has contributed to the development of transboundary EIA practice globally, he said. More than 30 countries have signed in the Espoo convention since it was implemented in 1997. The International Court of Justice cited that the transboundary EIA is part of the general international law, to which all members of the UN are obliged to commit, he said.
Koivurova used the Baltic Sea Gas Pipeline project as an example for transboundary EIA procedure to be applied to the affected states. More than 300 executives, officials and experts from Mekong countries and other 14 river basins from across the world gathered in Phuket to discuss transboundary river management. One of the topics on the agenda was achieving a balance in development in order to maintain water, food and energy security. The conference, ending with an MRC ministerial meeting today, aims to take a message to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro next month.