Non-profit group International Rivers has expressed disappointment over the unresolved dispute concerning the proposed dams on the Mekong River at the second Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit held recently in Vietnam.
International Rivers, which works with an international network of organisations that aim to protect rivers and local communities against unsustainable management, said that the actions and statements of government leaders in the region did not clearly denounce the current rush of dams being built along the mainstream portion of the lower Mekong river.
This is despite the fact that the on-going construction of dams pursued by the Lao government poses a threat to local communities and their livelihood, explained Ame Trandem, the environmental group’s Southeast Asia programme director.
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At the summit which concluded on April 5, government leaders from Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand and Vietnam presented the Ho Chi Minh Declaration, which set out new priorities for the MRC, an intergovernmental body between the four member countries that facilitates regional cooperation agreements relating to development projects around the river.
The MRC, while not a regulatory body, requires a consensus from all member states before any dam construction along the mainstream Mekong can proceed.
In the declaration, the actions proposed include expediting the implementation of MRC’s basin-wide studies to reduce negative impacts of development projects in the river, including hydropower, as well as prioritising initiatives on battling the effects of natural disasters and the impact of climate change and rising sea level on the river basin.
Trandem, however, stressed that impact studies should be finalised first. “We expect all construction on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams to end immediately and that no further decisions or actions be taken until the Mekong River Commission Council Study, Vietnam’s Delta Study, and transboundary impact assessments for each project have been completed and the results have been comprehensively reviewed,” she said.
Xayaburi, the first hydropower plant being constructed on the lower stretch of the Mekong is now 23 per cent completed, stated recent media reports in Laos.
The Mekong River Basin is a 4,909 kilometre-long river, which flows through six countries that include China, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
With increasing energy demand in these developing countries, building dams for large hydropower projects is seen as a necessary means to meet these needs, said the MRC. The four countries particularly situated at the lower Mekong are planning a total of 11 large hydropower dams along the river’s mainstream.
China is reported to have already built four dams in Yunnan province on the upper Mekong mainstream. Laos’ Xayaburi dam is a 1,285-megawatt hydropower project being developed by the Xayaburi Power Company on the lower Mekong side of Laos.
While hydropower is a renewable energy source, and therefore much cleaner than coal and other fossil fuels, the construction and maintenance of such large infrastructure projects have been controversial.
Other environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have echoed International Rivers’ concern and indicated that such initiatives are not sustainable.
It would only bring short-term development, they emphasised. The eco-group said the dams will impact marine biodiversity and food security as the infrastructure could block migratory fish from going back to their spawning grounds, and therefore affect the already stressed fish population.
Similarly, the United Nations recently drew global attention on the interdependence of water and energy development projects in a comprehensive report released in March on World Water Day. It pushed for a reassessment on the forms of energy production employed by countries and its impact on water security.
While the UN report acknowledged that hydropower as a form of energy production remains underexploited in the region, it noted that prospects are better for small-scale hydropower projects particularly for countries with short, swift rivers as well as tributaries of big rivers that do not affect communities living downstream.
“The ability to make informed decisions, based on sound data and scientific study, should be a prerequisite for starting deliberations over whether to build dams on the Mekong River mainstream,” added Trandem.
The Lao government claimed there are no risks in proceeding with the construction of the dam. Developers presented a report arguing that environmental concerns raised by various groups can be mitigated through a fish-pass system designed large enough to accommodate the passage of all breeds of river fish.
WWF, one of the 40 environmental groups actively campaigning against the Mekong dams, disagreed with the report.
Marc Goichot, sustainable hydropower lead with WWF-Greater Mekong, previously said that there are no internationally accepted, technologically proven solutions that could lessen the impact of dam construction on fish migrations and the flow of nutrient-rich sediments. “Resting the future of the Mekong on flawed analysis could have dire consequences for the livelihoods of millions of people living in the Mekong Basin,” commented Goichot.
Mekong’s future: From Hua Hin to Ho Chi Minh
Leaders of the four countries have pledged to follow up and continue implementing the cooperation agreements upheld at the Hua Hin Declaration, which set the sustainable use and management of the water and related resources of the Mekong River Basin.
The Hua Hin Declaration was the outcome of the first MRC summit held in Thailand in 2010.
The ability to make informed decisions, based on sound data and scientific study, should be a prerequisite for starting deliberations over whether to build dams on the Mekong River mainstream
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director, International Rivers
Officials noted that the development of water resources along the Mekong River Basin has contributed largely to the socio-economic development of the region, in the areas of transportation, energy and food production. They also recognised that the negative environmental and social impacts in the basin should be fully and effectively addressed.
The new declaration, which focused on “Water, energy and food security in the context of climate change for the Mekong River Basin”, promised to avoid, reduce and mitigate risks facing the river’s ecosystem – which is a source of food, livelihood and water for over 60 million people. It also identified these risks as coming from intensive agriculture, aquaculture and irrigation as well as hydropower and transportation along the river.
It also raised the need for further efforts to reduce the risks of natural disasters such as floods and droughts and the effects of the rising sea level in the basin.
In reference to hydropower projects, the declaration stated that the MRC should implement the results of the study conducted by the Commission’s Council on Sustainable Management and Development of Mekong River Basin, including the results of studies on impacts of mainstream hydropower projects and the Mekong Delta Study initiated by Vietnam.
To achieve these plans, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, whose country hosted the second MRC Summit, emphasised the need for efforts beyond national borders. “We need to strengthen regional cooperation, particularly among the riparian countries, both upper and lower, through multilateral and sub-regional mechanisms such as the MRC.”
However, these commitments inspired little confidence in International Rivers. Trandem remarked: “Words without actions are meaningless; the Lao government must stop its free reign of Mekong mainstream dam building.”