Dam meet offers MRC final chance to bare teeth

When ministers from the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and donors meet in Luang Prabang, Laos this week, the future role of the agency will be on the table.

  • Published: 14/01/2013 at 03:43 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

How the Mekong River Commission sees itself is not the way many others see it. (Photo from MRC website)

Questions about the effectiveness of the MRC, set up in 1995 to jointly manage sustainable development, have been raised by Laos' decision in November to go ahead with the US$3.5-billion (101 billion baht) Xayaburi dam.

The decision came despite concerns from member governments, environmental groups and donors about the dam's downstream impact on fish migration and sediment flows, which could affect two million people who are dependent on the river for their livelihoods.

At the commission's last ministerial meeting in December 2011, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam called for a delay to allow further studies on the environmental impact of the dam, the first to be built on the lower Mekong. China has built four dams on the upper portions of the river already.

Ten more dams are planned on the lower Mekong, mostly in Laos.

"We agreed to do a comprehensive study on the project which may take 10 years, because it is related to many things.

It was never just related to Xayaburi," Viraphonh  Viravong,  vice-minister  of energy and mines, said.

The joint venture between the Lao government   and   Thai   companies   also redesigned the dam's fish ladder and sluice gates for sediment flows, completing its perceived obligations to the MRC.

Laos has always argued the 40-metre high dam is a run-of-river design, which will have a minimal impact on water flow.

Cambodia and Vietnam, two downstream nations that stand to suffer the most from the dam, have tempered their reaction to Xayaburi.

Neither  country  has  requested  the Xayaburi issue be raised at the commission meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.

Thai company Ch Karnchang Public Co Ltd is the dam's major contractor.

Thailand, which will buy most of the electricity generated, has endorsed the project, to the dismay of Thai activists.

"The post-war Lao alliances to Cambodia and Vietnam have been taken over by Thai and Chinese corporate interests," Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator who has taken a lead in organising Thai opposition to the dam, said.

"The main goal of the donor community is to reconfirm that the MRC is the platform, the only multilateral architecture, responsible for managing the Mekong and we want to see a central role for it," one Western diplomat said. "We don't want to see it sidelined."

They are hoping future decisions on hydropower projects will take into account the concerns of all parties.

"If decision-making continues to occur outside of the MRC, the institution will soon lose its legitimacy and $300 million of international donor support to the commission will be wasted," Jian-hua Meng, a sustainable hydropower specialist at the World Wildlife Fund, said.

The Luang Prabang meeting comes as the Lao government faces international scrutiny for the disappearance of anti-dam activist Sombath Somphone, last seen being detained at a police checkpoint on Dec 15.

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Writer: dpa

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