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Mekong River body must be allowed to judge dam plans

Oct 10. 2013
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The Mekong River Commission needs to speak louder and take decisive measures over proposals to build dams on the main stream of the river - otherwise it could become an irrelevant paper tiger.

Nobody should say the MRC has no authority to make a decision to manage the lower portion of the Mekong basin. This particular organisation was set up after the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The 18-year-old organisation might be relatively young but it is heir to the Mekong Committee, founded by the United Nations more than half a century ago. The MRC took wisdom, knowledge, experience and technique from its predecessor. In this sense, the MRC is no longer young, but mature enough to handle all serious issues in the Mekong basin.

The MRC had a very clear vision from the start to bring about an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound river basin. The organisation also has a solid mandate to balance all aspects of development, economically, socially and environmentally.

The MRC comprises members from four countries in the Lower Mekong Basin: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Some members like Laos and Thailand might share a longer part of the river with a combined length of nearly 50 per cent of the lower basin area, but other members also have big stakes in the basin.

Representatives in the commission’s council are not junior officials but at levels as high as ministers from governments in Vientiane, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hanoi. The first summit of the Lower Mekong River Commission was held in 2010 and it will not be the last one, so decisions for every ‘important issue’ could be made by heads of government with full authority.

The point is, the top decisive component of the MRC should take all serious development projects in the mainstream Mekong into its consideration. Normal procedure is, perhaps, not adequate to handle projects which have trans-boundary implications.

In fact, the MRC has already been well aware of ‘new risks’ from development projects in the basin, notably from hydropower projects in the mainstream of the river. In 2011, the commission mapped out the Integrated Water and Related Resources Management-based Basin Development Strategy and action plan for 2011-2015. The two papers addressed the issue of trans-boundary risks posed by hydropower dams.

Water utilisation projects for whatever purpose are required to go through a notification, prior consultation and agreement process. The latest notification from Vientiane on September 30 was a proposal to build the Don Sahong hydropower project in Siphandon in southern Champasak province. It is the second notification from Laos about the construction of a dam on the Mekong mainstream.

The first, the Xayaburi dam in the north, saw Laos notify the MRC and go through a prior consultation process, during which it met a lot of doubt from environmentalists and conservationists. But work on that dam has gone ahead regardless, and we do not know what to expect after it is built. And Laos has now proposed to build a second one downstream.

Judging from the Xayaburi experience, all projects could pass through the process no matter what serious threat they pose to the ecological balance in the basin. Currently, MRC processes seem to merely justify, rather than examine dam proposals. That needs to change.


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