Make or break time for Mekong River as Xayaburi dam decision looms

Environment and water resource ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam meeting in Siem Reap next week hold the fate of the Mekong River in their hands as they look set to reach a decision on a go or no-go for the controversial Xayaburi dam in northern Laos.

In April this year the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental agency made up of representatives from the four lower Mekong countries, did not reach agreement on the Xayaburi dam and agreed to defer the final decision to the ministerial level.

The MRC’s upcoming Ministerial-level meeting is expected to consider a review by the Finnish water consulting firm, Poyry, on the dam’s compliance with the MRC’s requirements. Commissioned by the Lao government, the review is intended to address concerns raised by Cambodian, Thai and Vietnamese delegates about the project’s impact on biodiversity and fisheries and the effectiveness of the mitigation measures and the MRC design guideline.

The review has concluded that the Xayaburi project meets the MRC’s requirements despite stating that additional baseline data on biology, ecology and livelihood restoration is needed, as well as improved knowledge concerning the proposed passes for migrating fish.

“It is astounding that Poyry affirms there are serious data gaps and weaknesses with the project and still gives it the all clear,” said Dr Jian-hua Meng, WWF’s Sustainable Hydropower Specialist. “Poyry recommends dealing with the critical knowledge gaps during the construction phase. Playing roulette with the livelihoods of over 60 million people would not be acceptable in Europe so why is it different in Asia?”

WWF says the review is yet to be formally released despite appearing on an online forum in Laos. In WWF’s critiques of the Poyry review, the conservation organisation points to failures to fully understand and account for the impacts of the Xayaburi dam, particularly concerning fisheries and sediment flows, and contradictions within the review itself.

“The Poyry review does identify uncertainties and weaknesses with the proposed fish passes and even acknowledges that the Xayaburi dam fails to comply with at least a quarter of the MRC’s guidance on this,” added Dr Meng. “This is completely at odds with their advice to green light the project and flies in the face of the precautionary principle, which underpins the MRC guidelines.”

WWF says the Poyry review also confirms the Xayaburi project will block part of the sediment flow and that important gaps in knowledge concerning the sediment aspects remain. The Mekong’s rich sediment is essential for maintaining balance in the Mekong ecosystem and building up the delta.

“Nothing has changed for the better for the Xayaburi dam project,” said Dr Meng. “A failure to address the uncertainties with this project could have dire consequences for the livelihoods of millions of people living in the Mekong river basin.”

The Mekong winds 4,800 kilometres down to the South China Sea, making it the longest river in Southeast Asia. More than 700 species of freshwater fish ply its water, including four of the world’s biggest freshwater fish species, notably the iconic and endangered Mekong giant catfish.

The Lower Mekong, one of the last large untamed stretches of river in the world, supports nearly 60 million people with its rich fisheries. As the first dam project to enter the MRC’s formal consultation process, the Xayaburi project will test the effectiveness of the MRC, and the consensus decision reached by Ministers will set an important precedent for 10 other dams proposed for the lower mainstream of the river.

“The lower Mekong countries now stand at a cross road, next week they can choose to be a global leader in sustainable hydropower and defer the decision on Xayaburi dam or they can choose to risk putting their people, their livelihoods and their much loved river in peril,” added Dr Meng.

Earlier this year, Vietnam’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources officially asked for a 10-year delay of mainstream dams and Cambodia’s Minister of Water Resources also supports a delay. This message was heard by the Lao PM, who announced on the side of the ASEAN Summit that construction of Xayaburi dam will be deferred to allow for more studies to be conducted.

WWF urges Ministers to follow the recommendation of the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment of mainstream dams and defer a decision on the dam for 10 years to ensure critical data can be gathered and a decision can be reached using sound science and analysis. WWF advises lower Mekong countries considering hydropower projects to prioritise dams on some Mekong tributaries that are easier to assess and are considered to have a much lower impact and risk.

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