Mekong River agency must step up
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Mekong River agency must step up

More transparency needed from Mekong govts

This week from April 2-5, the leaders and relevant ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam will gather in Vientiane, Laos, to reaffirm their commitment to the sustainable development and management of the Mekong's mighty river system.

This will be the 4th Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit since the landmark Mekong Agreement was signed as an international treaty in 1995. Handshakes and smiles will symbolise the collaborative energy that has formed a "Mekong Spirit" among the four member countries over the last three decades. Yet behind closed doors, will leaders "act with their feet on fire to survive and prosper", to paraphrase MRC CEO Anoulak Kittikhoun's 2022 inaugural State of the Mekong address?

The Mekong Agreement is only useful as long as its signatories adhere to agreed-upon practices. Below I give summary to three instances where the Mekong Agreement is not being followed and call for higher levels of accountability and action from MRC member governments.

Satellite imagery and reports show major construction began at the controversial Sekong A Dam in southern Laos near the border of Cambodia in December 2020. That 85-megawatt dam, built by a Vietnamese company, will be the first one to block the Sekong River, a fish migration super-highway responsible for much of the 500,000-tonne annual fish catch in Cambodia's Tonle Sap. The dam is now about 60% complete, and when finished, it will deliver a death blow to the Mekong's total fish population, on which tens of millions of people rely for their protein consumption. The government of Laos is required by the 1995 Mekong Agreement's Article 5a to notify the Mekong River Commission when a dam on a Mekong tributary begins construction. But according to a March 14, 2023 Facebook post on the MRC's official account, the government of Laos did not notify the MRC until August 2022. It took over a year of campaigning by key institutions in Cambodia and Vietnam to convince the government of Laos to notify the MRC, something the Lao government should have done in 2020.

Currently, the MRC is facilitating a Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TbEIA) for the Sekong A Dam, something the MRC will be quick to point out as an achievement, but it's coming more than two years too late. TbEIAs should be conducted before a project breaks ground. In the case of the Sekong A Dam, its impact will without a doubt be determined to cause substantial damage to the Mekong fishery. By definition of the Mekong Agreement, such a severe impact should require the government of Laos to cease or delay construction of the dam until mitigating factors can be determined. If the project is stopped or delayed, this could signal Laos takes its MRC commitments seriously. However, given the advanced state of the dam's construction, its fate is likely sealed, and along with it, the ruination of the Mekong fishery.

In June 2022, The Star Malaysia reported on the addition of a 65MW turbine at the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong mainstream in Laos. This significant expansion of power generation capacity is happening without the consultation processes required by the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

In March 2022, China's Dongfang Electric signed a supply contract for a new 65MW turbine to be installed as part of a major expansion of the Don Sahong Dam. An expansion of this nature requires more water to flow through the dam's structure, and as such will bring unknown changes to the hydrological pattern of the Mekong.

For a mainstream alteration of this size, regardless of whether it is the expansion of an existing dam or the building of a new dam, the government of Laos is required to follow the Mekong Agreement's Prior Notification and Prior Consultation Process (PNPCA) by notifying the MRC, which will then set up regional consultations to disseminate information about the project and collect opinions and technical feedback on impacts and possible mitigation measures. That has not happened, and as such is another violation of the Mekong Agreement.

A third issue is the operation of the Xayaburi Dam on the mainstream Mekong in Laos. As a run-of-river dam, by design it should have a limited impact on the Mekong's natural flow regime. In other words, by contractual agreement with the government of Laos, the Xayaburi Dam should not severely change the way the river flows. Yet, river gauge data below the Xayaburi Dam show the dam is operated in a way that causes the river's level to fluctuate up and down on a daily basis, which the river would not do under natural conditions.

The Xayaburi Reservoir can cause downstream river levels to fluctuate by more than a half metre daily up and down repeatedly for periods as long as five days. The dam is operated in an extreme manner to maximise electricity generation and profit; yet it is done at the expense of changing the natural flow regime, delivering profound impacts on fisheries downstream. Fishing communities downstream of the Xayaburi Dam have reportedly been complaining about the sudden daily fluctuations and the rapid depletion of fisheries since the dam went online in 2018.

The government of Laos should require the Xayaburi Dam operator to operate the dam by the letter of its contractual agreement and in the fashion that the operator promised to the governments and people of the Mekong via MRC protocols. But Lao government agencies are not enforcing this contract.

The three instances outlined above are tests of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which reveal the need for improved transparency and communication from the government of Laos. It is the member governments via the MRC's Joint Committee who need to act on these violations. It is not the responsibility of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat in Vientiane to do so, as the Secretariat works by and large at the bidding of the Joint Committee.

Today, the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam are making significant investments in ambitious Mekong conservation efforts. Western development partners like the EU, the United States and Australia are supporting those investments with hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars.

In order for those investments to come close to achieving success, and for the Mekong to keep its mightiness, MRC member governments must follow the rules and hold each other accountable.

Brian Eyler is the director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program, co-lead of the Mekong Dam Monitor, and author of 'Last Days of the Mighty Mekong'.

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