Hydropower Dams on Mekong River, Livelihood of Millions at Risk?

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Scientists, Development Experts, Civil Society Advocates and Current and Former Officials Gather To Discuss Future Of River

For Immediate Release 
September 2, 2014

Contact: Jim Baird, [email protected], (202) 478-3413

Watch Dr. Richard Cronin discuss below or here:

More than three dozen internationally respected scientists, development experts, civil society advocates and current and former officials concluded two and a half days of discussions last Saturday aimed at finding solutions to competing and mutually exclusive uses of one of Asia’s most important water resources. The workshop held in in Chiang Rai, Thailand was organized by the Stimson Center and the Institute for the Study of Natural Resources and Environmental Management (NREM) of Mae Fah Luang University.

Highly contested plans for the construction of up to eleven hydropower dams on the  lower half of Mekong River in Southeast Asia threaten the food security and wellbeing of millions as well as the stability of fast-developing region that has only recently emerged from decades of bitter warfare.

Three main themes emerged from the discussions: the critical importance of supporting and adhering to the procedures established by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a treaty-based organization created by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam for cooperative and sustainable use of the shared water of the lower Mekong;  the urgent necessity of finalizing a protocol for  trans-boundary environmental and socioeconomic impact assessments of proposed mainstream dams; and the parallel need to develop standardized national laws and regulations that establish the necessary metrics for both national and transboundary EIAs and SIAs.

The Mekong River is a resource shared by China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  The main stream and tributaries of the Mekong have significant hydroelectric power potential which — in most cases — cannot be exploited without major environmental impact.  China has already constructed a massive cascade of seven large to mega-sized dams on the river in Yunnan Province whichalready are causing serious environmental and ecological impact in northern Laos.

The determination of the Government of Laos to go ahead with the construction of the first two of nine planned mainstream dams despite the strong objections of Vietnam and Cambodia is testing the strength and effectiveness of the MRC and its mission to  advise governments on sustainable development of shared water resources. Wild fish and other aquatic animals provide 40-80 percent of animal protein in local diets in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.  The Lao dams would mainly supply electricity to Thailand

“The Mekong is one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the world,” said Director of Stimson’s Southeast Asia program Dr. Richard Cronin. “Bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders is the best way to reconcile all of its competing uses.”

The workshop held August 28-30 focused on water, environmental, and legal issues surrounding new dams, as well as alternative approaches to water governance in the region. It also examined what funders, the private sector, and civil society can do to influence regional policy toward a sustainable solution for the river. Attendees included officials from the MRC, all four lower riparian countries and donor countries with expertise in relevant fields .  The workshop sessions were structured to promote extensive cross-sector discussions about the challenges and trade-offs of water resources development and  widen the dialogue at a critical moment for the futurre of the river.

“Every one of the six countries that share the 5,080 kilometers-long river considers their stretch of the main stream their sovereign right to exploit,” said Cronin. “When the natural functions of the river are interfered with by projects like dams, then you’re putting tens of millions of people’s livelihoods and food security at risk.”

Discussions quickly indicated a consensus that the Mekong River Commission—the organization responsible for addressing water governance in the Mekong region—is increasingly unable to manage development throughout the basin. The MRC has always faced capacity issues—all four lower riparian countries are protective of sovereignty, and the MRC was not given enforcement capabilities by the 1995 Agreement that created it. The MRC’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement, which are intended to help gain full consensus for building dams and other projects impacting water in the basin from all riparians, failed for Laos’ Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dam projects.

As a result, momentum and initiative for addressing issues have shifted to legal action. The most recent case of this is a lawsuit filed in Thailand against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, but there have also been two cases filed in Europe under the OECD guidelines for corporate social responsibility. Despite the vital institutional role that the MRC plays in providing a forum for discussion among riparian nations, the growing lack of confidence in the MRC’s capabilities may well deal further blows to its ability to support good water governance in the future and lead to a drop in funding.

One vital issue is eroding confidence in the MRC is its apparent inability to create a much-needed trans-boundary environmental and social impact assessment (TbESIA) standard. Although the MRC is involved in two major studies—a Council Study, which was the result of negotiations over the Xayaburi Dam, and a delta study that Vietnam has undertaken—both are still in progress. As each country currently has separate standards for doing environmental and social impact assessments, there is no single set of data that can be used to determine impacts across national boundaries. None of the proposed mainstream projects has taken into account the cumulative impacts of dam cascades on fisheries, sedimentation, water quality, or impacts on downstream dams. Participants emphasized the need to establish a regional standard for doing TbESIAs, either through the MRC framework or private efforts.

The Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security through a unique combination of rigorous analysis and outreach. Founded in 1989, Stimson is celebrating 25 years of building effective security solutions through pragmatic research and innovative analysis. From the Mekong River to the South China Sea, Stimson’s Southeast Asia program seeks to examine some of the most pressing challenges facing the region.

Follow Dr. Richard Cronin, the Southeast Asia program, and Stimson on Twitter

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