Striking a fair balance on Mekong dams
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Striking a fair balance on Mekong dams

A 'slow boat' sails the Mekong River near the Pak Beng dam site, down-river from Chiang Kong. (File photo by Pianporn Detes)
A 'slow boat' sails the Mekong River near the Pak Beng dam site, down-river from Chiang Kong. (File photo by Pianporn Detes)

This Friday, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) will hold their second Regional Stakeholder Forum under the Prior Consultation procedure for the Pak Beng dam, the third hydropower project proposed for the lower Mekong River mainstem.

The Prior Consultation for the first two dams, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, was in both cases a highly controversial and fraught process, with the lower Mekong governments -- Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam -- unable to reach agreement.

According to the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the Prior Consultation process is explicitly aimed at trying to achieve agreement between the regional governments around proposals for dams or other projects on the Mekong River. An important role of the MRC is to ensure this process balances competing rights and interests. The Mekong Agreement states that Prior Consultation is "neither a right of any country to veto a project, nor is it a right of any country to proceed with a proposed use of the river without taking into account the other riparian countries' rights and concerns".

However, the way in which the MRC is framing Prior Consultation is increasingly constrained, emphasising the first part of the statement, while glossing over the importance of the second.

The CEO of the MRC Secretariat was recently reported as saying the proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream cannot be stopped. He has framed the Prior Consultation as limited to dialogue around the mitigation of project impacts, rather than the larger question of whether and how dams on the Mekong mainstream should proceed. In our view, this diminishes the role of the MRC as set out in the Mekong Agreement.

The MRC Secretariat has also cited the process for the Xayaburi dam as a positive model for Prior Consultation. This is based on the developers' response to extensive regional outcry and public pressure, investing an additional US$400 million (13.8 billion baht) in a redesign of the project.

To put forward the Xayaburi dam consultation as a model for regional cooperation is a highly selective reframing of what occurred during that process.

The Xayaburi dam proceeded despite sustained opposition from other lower Mekong governments, communities, civil society, and other stakeholders across the region. The process was elevated to council level within the MRC, without a successful resolution. Nearly seven years later, the Xayaburi dam is around 75% complete, yet the full details of the redesign have not been made public; nor has the MRC completed a review of the redesign's compliance with its preliminary design guidance.

The absence of sufficient baseline data at the outset of the project has made the monitoring and assessment of the impact mitigation measures extremely difficult. The adequacy of the Prior Consultation is at issue in an ongoing court case in the Administrative Court filed by villagers affected by the Xayaburi dam's transboundary impacts in Thailand.

With the Pak Beng Prior Consultation, the MRC has touted improved information-sharing and stakeholder engagement, drawing on "lessons learned" from Xayaburi and Don Sahong.

However, despite these changes, it is hard to see how input from the public and concerned citizens of the Mekong in the Pak Beng Prior Consultation will serve any meaningful purpose, including in impact mitigation.

For Pak Beng, the information put forward by the developers for the Prior Consultation process is similarly inadequate to assess environmental and social impacts on the Mekong. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) and supporting documents demonstrate major gaps in baseline data, which is essential in designing mitigation measures targeted to the local context. Much of the data is taken from studies conducted in 2011 and earlier, failing to take account of the projects along the Mekong that are now under construction. That the Prior Consultation process was initiated on the basis of this limited information is in itself questionable.

Further, proposed mitigation measures such as fish passages remain untested in the context of the Mekong River; there is therefore no way of accurately determining their efficacy. Fisheries experts have repeatedly affirmed the risks of employing these measures in the Mekong and stated they are highly unlikely to be effective given the volume and diversity of fish species in the Mekong River.

Independent studies looking at the proposed dams on the Mekong, such as the 2010 MRC-commissioned strategic environmental assessment, warn that the impacts of hydropower projects are cumulative and will be compounded with each new project that is built.

Notably, during the Prior Consultation for Xayaburi, the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia supported one of the key recommendations of the SEA, calling for a moratorium on dam-building on the Mekong mainstream to enable further studies and a comprehensive understanding of the cumulative and basin-wide impacts of mainstream dams before proceeding.

These concerns led the four governments to commit to the MRC council study at the 3rd Mekong-Japan Summit in 2011.

According to the MRC, the council study aims to close important knowledge gaps on how mainstream dams "will impact the river basin environmentally, economically and socially". As a basin-wide study, it is intended to supplement information on individual projects provided through the Prior Consultation.

The council study has been subject to repeated delays, but is now scheduled for completion in December 2017. On this timeline, the final findings of the study are likely to come too late to inform the Pak Beng Prior Consultation, as the initial six-month process will conclude in June 2017, although it has the possibility of extension.

At the very least, new assessments should be conducted for the Pak Beng Dam using current data to address information gaps. The timeline for the Prior Consultation must be extended to evaluate updated assessments and the findings of the MRC's council study.

The stakes for the Mekong and the people of the region are too high to get it wrong on Mekong dams. As the institution charged with ensuring sustainable development and conservation within the Mekong River Basin, the MRC has an important opportunity to help ensure sound decision-making based on comprehensive information and quality, basin-wide studies.

This is critical not just for Pak Beng, but for proposed future projects as well.

Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia Programme Director at International Rivers.

Maureen Harris

Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers

Maureen Harris is the Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers.

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