The Stimson Center partnered with the Institute for the Study of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at Mae Fah Luang University to hold a workshop, Finding Solutions to Equitable Hydropower Development Planning in the Lower Mekong Basin, in Chiangrai, Thailand from August 28-31, 2014. The conference included two and a half days of discussion, and the more than 40 workshop participants included internationally recognized scientific, technical and legal experts; senior and mid-level officials from Mekong governments and MRC development partner governments, including Australia and the United States; and the CEO of the MRC.
Despite the growing marginalization of the MRC and the prospect of irrevocable damage to the river and the people who depend on it, the workshop was structured to promote extensive cross-sector and multidisciplinary discussions about the challenges and trade-offs of water resources development and to take a forward-looking approach to widen the dialogue around the future of the river. Panels examined the current status of the basin; the role of the Mekong River Commission and other regional organizations; the state of knowledge about environmental impacts; legal issues surrounding the mainstream dams; and alternative approaches to development. Following deliberations, participants went to the city of Chiang Saen to examine the role that the river plays in the local economy and the impacts of Chinese dams upstream.
Panel 1: The MRC and Regional Cooperation on Cooperative Water Management at the Tipping Point
Hans Guttman, CEO of the Mekong River Commission, kicked off discussion with an update on the basin-wide Council Study that has been under discussion since December 2011: although differing views among participant countries about the scope of the Council Study’s mandate have remained an obstacle, there was head-of-state level agreement that the study must be implemented rapidly at the most recent MRC summit meeting in April 2014. He indicated that participants hope to get final agreement on the remaining controversial points by fall of 2015. He also highlighted a recent meeting on the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNPCA) for the Don Sahong dam, noting that the MRC working group had reached general agreement that stakeholder engagement and public information sharing would part of the process and that the ultimate outcome would include a report.
The rest of the panel highlighted three main challenges facing the basin: Mr. Kraisak Choonhavan, a former Thai senator, focused on the need to ensure that the public is consulted on major infrastructure and commercial interest projects in all MRC countries, emphasizing that even in Thailand there is not enough legal or institutional support for implementing the consultation process. He pointed to corporate interests and a disconnect between national-level authorities who make policy and the needs and wants of locals who will be most affected by dams and other major projects. Ms. Pianporn Deetes of International Rivers agreed on the need for better consultation, pointing to an additional need for better coordination between downstream countries and China over China’s dam cascade on the upper Mekong. She emphasized the need for information sharing, noting that the northern river basin in particular needs more information about China’s water release schedule, sediment trapping, and impacts on the income and livelihoods of downstream residents. Dr. Carl Middleton of Chulalongkorn University highlighted the divergences of interest between the large cities and drivers of energy demand, which are located outside the basin, and the local communities which depend on the river system for their livelihoods. He pointed out that this disconnect and the inability or unwillingness on the part of central planners to bridge the gap has led to the energy-food-water-livelihoods nexus that challenges the Mekong region today.
Pianporn Deetes: Downstream Impacts of Lancang/Upper Mekong Dams: An Overview (download below)
Panel 2: The State of Knowledge about Environmental Impacts of Dams on the Mainstream and Major Tributaries
Participants recognized widely that there are major challenges in addressing fisheries due to the information gap. Dr. Richard Friend emphasized the current development model has been driven by misconceptions about the basin, primarily that the fisheries are in an inevitable decline, that fisheries have a limited role in economic development, and that aquaculture will compensate for these losses. He points out that fisheries production appears to have increased in recent years, noting that there are no good alternatives, and that this knowledge must be taken into account by regional planners. Dr. Tuantong Jutagate discusses the role that biodiversity and migratory fish play in the region’s fisheries, noting that if all dams currently planned are built then nearly 81% of the Lower Mekong Basin will be blocked to fish by 2030. While this doesn’t account for mitigation efforts, he points out that the current methods being implemented are untested and that serious questions about their effectiveness remain. Mr. Nguyen Thanh Binh emphasizes regional dependency on the river system, pointing out that not only are local communities dependent on the river for their livelihoods but that national governments—particularly Vietnam—also depend on the river’s natural resources to power their economic growth. Dr. Jiragorn Gajaseni raises the need for development that is sustainable, pointing out that the rampant poverty in the basin leads to environmental destruction, degrading the natural capital and trapping people in a vicious cycle of dependency. He proposes viewing sustainability and protection of natural resources and ecosystem services as methods of ensuring ecological security and managing development risks.
Panel 3: Legal Issues Surrounding Mainstream Dams
NOTE: Due to the sensitivity of the issues discussed on this panel, discussion was held under Chatham House rules and comments are not attributed.
The consensus that emerged from this discussion is that the legal risk for those who undertake or support hydropower projects in the Mekong are significantly more widespread today than they were in past decades. Information about the impacts of projects are far more widely recognized, but the environmental impact assessment systems have not kept pace with this, which has led to cases like the May 2014 acceptance of a lawsuit against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand for failing to ensure proper environmental impact assessments (EIAs) took place before a power-purchase agreement was signed. Knowledgeable participants noted that they expect Thailand’s supreme administrative court to rule the agreement invalid because it didn’t meet constitutional requirements and the current scientific evidence indicates that more study is needed before an EIA could meet Thailand’s standards. One participant notes that there may be openings for cases against organizations in other countries to be brought in Thailand, given that judicial activism seems to be on the rise in the region.
Another participant raised the role of China, noting that China has been adopting additional measures domestically which could impact their role in the region, particularly those which enhance environmental impact assessment standards and enforcement. In September 2014, the Chinese government also provided new guidelines for EIAs which explicitly reference transboundary impacts.
Lastly, participants discussed that numerous countries in the region are recognizing that current EIA laws don’t have high enough standards and that the lack of coordinated transboundary impact assessments (TbEIAs) poses a major challenge for development in the basin. All downstream countries have recognized the need for better TbEIAs, but the MRC negotiations on establishing a TbEIA procedure have stalled over disagreements over what would trigger an TbEIA, the extent of impact studies that would be required, and how to negotiate changes to planned projects. As a result, national-level changes are gaining momentum: Myanmar will be releasing a new EIA law this year; Vietnam has begun considering revisions to its own; and Cambodian politicians are in the midst of revamping their own EIA law to require more comprehensive studies and ensure that there’s significant opportunity for feedback from downstream countries for any new project proposal.
Panel 4: Alternative Approaches to Optimizing Water-Energy-Food Security and Livelihood Tradeoffs in the Lower Mekong
Dr. Thanapon Piman discussed the key factors driving natural resource use and degradation: population growth; economic growth; urbanization; and climate change, which acts as a multiplier of the other factors. He notes that historically, the environment has taken the brunt of the negative impact in order to support social and economic development, and that has led to a lack of equity between different stakeholders. In order to ensure that development is optimized on a basin-wide basis, the benefits and costs must be equitably shared by all.
Mr. Ian Makin emphasized the need to balance water needs of communities and industry with the need to restore rivers and ecosystems, pointing out that traditional urban planning did not account for the need to build resiliency or take into account the water cycle. He highlights the lack of coordination and trade-offs that occur, with some ministries—electricity or energy—emerging as more powerful, and emphasizes the need for integrated planning between the ministries to help balance this. Dr. Kanokwan Manorom agrees and adds that the government tends to prioritize economic growth and industry over directly improving the lives of citizens by improving their access to electricity or seriously mitigating the negative impacts of infrastructure projects. She also points out that after major hydropower projects like the Pak Mun or Nam Theun 2, there has been little follow-up once construction ends despite continued impact on residents. She raises the idea of a People’s EIA, where local communities and universities cooperate to get on-the-ground, reliable data that can be used to do a comprehensive EIA
Dr. David Blake noted the tendency for regional development planners and policy makers to promote irrigation development as a panacea for economic growth, poverty alleviation, and drought eradication. Pointing to the case of Northeast Thailand, he revealed data indicating that when compared to investments in education, electricity, roads, and agriculture R&D, irrigation development provides the lowest return on public investment and impact on poverty reduction. He argued that like hydropower projects, irrigation projects also have a large environmental impact and considerable externalities that are rarely considered by national developers, and noted that despite being publicly funded the projects often avoid economic scrutiny. He suggested that the institutions related to irrigation development need to be better understood by researchers interested in wider questions of Mekong water governance.
All panelists touched on the idea of ecosystem valuation, with Ian Makin noting that there are successful examples of governments paying local communities to manage and protect the ecosystem. The challenge is that planners often view wetlands and other ecosystems as having little intrinsic value. David Blake points out that there have been some studies on this, but that they didn’t get the attention they ought to have—the MRC’s Integrated Basin Flow Management Study was a prime example, as it was never released given the controversial findings. Thanapon Piman notes that the primary difficulty is translating ecosystem services into a monetary equivalent, and other participants highlighted that if services are given an economic value then there are risks they’ll be treated simply as economic assets, which would threaten the idea of the triple-bottom line.
Panel 5: What Can Bilateral ODA Donors, MRC Development Partners, and Other Stakeholders Do to Influence Sustainable Management of Water Resources in the LMB?
Dr. John Dore explained that Australia’s aid in the Mekong basin is focused around increasing effective management of the basin, supporting accountability of actors, emphasizing inclusivity in planning, promoting informed governance, and promoting dialogue. The aid and grants that Australia provides through groups like CGIAR and Oxfam are generally to support small, local groups, whereas 10-15% of Australia’s Mekong Basin aid is marked for the MRC. Mr. Eric Frater discussed the U.S. State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative, noting that it reflects the reality that future U.S. core interests will be centered in the Pacific region and that it’s part of the United States’ larger rebalance. The LMI goals are to help direct attention to a region with numerous transboundary challenges and support joint cooperation in addressing them through dialogue. Efforts to do so include both on-the-ground capacity and language training as well as study tours for regional officials to visit the United States.
Mr. Peter King emphasized that it is vital for the region to develop a clear transboundary EIA standard that includes triggers, information exchange, and dispute resolution, noting that the impacts of climate change will mean more projects will have transboundary impacts. He suggests that development partners begin to integrate climate change impacts and resilience needs into their discussion, providing best practice examples, and emphasize the desire to use the transboundary EIA as a tool for their investment projects in the basin.
Dr. Alan Potkin discussed the importance of non-traditional information sharing in discussing regional development, using the attached documents to discuss how interactive PDFs can encompass vast amounts of information while still being accessible to readers and available in an offline format.
Dr. Richard Frankel pointed out that a recent review of the Nam Theun 2 dam show that it has approximately 25% more storage capacity than originally anticipated, which could translate to an additional 500 MW of installed power capacity. He suggests that stakeholders pressure EGAT to consider re-negotiating their current purchase power agreement to increase the amount of energy that they buy, which would allow Laos to increase their exports of electricity without needing to build the Don Sahong Dam. This would allow for negotiations with Laos to benefit economically while still allowing for an 8-10 year moratorium on new projects.
Excursion to Chiang Saen
On August 31, some conference participants attended an optional day-trip to Chiang Saen for a meeting with the Chiang Saen port director on the Mekong River’s socio-economic importance for the city. The port director discussed the vital role that the river plays in trade, noting that the Chinese dams upstream have been highly beneficial from a trade perspective because they make the river more navigable during the dry season. He noted that while the port is still small, it has grown to incorporate up to 450 ton vessels and that Chiang Saen has become a regional hub for food transport. He notes that if the Pak Beng Dam is built, it will help stabilize the backwaters and raise water levels for anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks per year.
The Chiang Saen trip also included a stop at the Golden Triangle to see how growing river trade and investments have helped the local community, featuring a glimpse of major Chinese investments in casinos and tourism facilities on the Lao side of the river. Attendees also stopped at the historical site of Wat Jadeeloung to meet with Chiang Saen’s deputy mayor and the temple head to discuss the region’s history and future outlook. The temple is undergoing renovations, and the deputy mayor and temple head both discussed how they expect tourism in the area to increase as interconnectivity increases.
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