Photo Credit: PanNature

Statement of the Save the Mekong Coalition for the 23rd MRC Council Meeting

On the occasion of the 23rd Meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council, the Save the Mekong Coalition has issued a Statement to express our serious concern over the ongoing development of hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream, despite unresolved issues over transboundary and cumulative impacts of projects already under construction and a breakdown in shared regional decision-making. We are further concerned about the status of the MRC Council Study, intended to inform decisions regarding development on the Mekong River, and request information on the status of the study, as well as of the review of the 1995 Mekong Agreement’s Procedures by the MRC’s Joint Platform.

The decision-making processes for the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, now under construction on the Mekong mainstream in Lao PDR, ignited significant controversy within the Mekong region and internationally. Requests for information and concerns over project impacts expressed during the Prior Consultation procedures were not formally addressed, including calls for extension of the consultation period, thorough baseline information, and studies of transboundary impacts. Both projects proceeded despite the absence of agreement or resolution of concerns within the MRC’s Joint Committee and Council.

 

The Mekong River is a vital shared resource for the region. There is an urgent need for change in the decision-making processes that are informing hydropower development in the Mekong Basin to ensure a sustainable future for the river and her people.

We call on the Mekong governments and the Mekong River Commission to:

  • Prioritize participation and consultation on the Council Study, expedite completion of the Council Study and disseminate ongoing results to the public, ensuring that these findings and those of the Mekong Delta Study inform further decision affecting the future of the river;
  • Prioritize organizational reform, including an assessment of the future of the MRC and the 1995 Agreement, with participation by the public and Mekong communities. The Mekong Agreement and procedures must be transparently reviewed and adapted in accordance with regional processes and developments in international law.
  • Halt further decision-making over Mekong mainstream dams, until such a time as decisions can be informed by and based upon meaningful consultation, particularly with local project-affected communities, and sound basin-wide studies which consider the transboundary and cumulative impacts of mainstream dams.

Vietnamese version of the Statement

Open Letter from Save the Mekong Coalition to MRC Development Partners

In advance of the Mekong River Commission’s Informal Donor Meeting this week, the Save the Mekong Coalition writes the open letter to express serious and ongoing concern over the outstanding issues and questions surrounding hydropower dam construction on the mainstream of the Mekong River.

The Coalition calls on Mekong River Commission developments partners to:

  • Renew their calls to the MRC to effect the release of the current designs for the Xayaburi dam and clarification of the status of the Prior Consultation process for the Don Sahong Dam;
  • Require reform of the MRC’s procedures before any further project is commenced, including requirements for comprehensive assessments and release of information, meaningful public participation and the transparent resolution of disputes;
  • Reconsider their support to the MRC if it remains unable to fulfil the purpose of ensuring adherence to the spirit and principles of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

The Open Letter: EnglishThai versions, and Vietnamese news on the letter (updated).

China dams blamed for worsening S.E. Asia drought

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — As China opened one of its six dams on the upper Mekong River last month to help parched Southeast Asian countries down river cope with a record drought, it was hailed as benevolent water diplomacy.

But to critics of hydroelectric dams built on the Mekong over the concerns of governments and activists, it was the self-serving act of a country that, along with hydropower-exporting Laos, has helped worsen the region’s water and environmental problems.

Much of Southeast Asia is suffering its worst drought in 20 or more years. Tens of millions of people in the region are affected by the low level of the Mekong, a rice-bowl-sustaining river system that flows into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Fresh water is running short for hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam and Cambodia, and reduced water for irrigation has hurt agriculture, particularly rice growing in Thailand, where land under cultivation is being cut significantly this year.

Vietnam estimates that 400,000 hectares have been affected by saltwater intrusion, with about 166,000 hectares rendered infertile. The affected land accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country’s paddy cultivation area in the Mekong Delta, its main rice-growing region.

The water level in the Tonle Sap River as it passes the royal palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has fallen to a 50-year low.

Fingers are mainly pointed at the El Nino climate phenomenon, which produces drier and hotter-than-usual weather globally. But environmentalists and some officials say the situation is worsened by the 10 dams on the Mekong’s mainstream built over the past two decades, at least partly because they reduce rainy-season flooding and trap sediments, making the downstream delta more vulnerable to seawater intrusion.

“I’ve lost all my investment. My family was left with nothing,” said Thach Tai, a farmer from Ngoc Bien village in the southern Vietnamese province of Tra Vinh, as he surveyed his 2,000 square meters of dead, dry paddies.

The current El Nino is one of the strongest climate events in the past 60 years “that is not over yet,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director general at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It is the main factor in the drought, but “dams along the Mekong can and certainly do cause some problems,” she said.

Vietnam says the saltwater intrusion into its southern Mekong Delta is unprecedented. In mid-March, it asked China to double the amount of water discharged from its Jinghong dam in Yunnan Province. China agreed and the increased water flow is expected to continue until April 10.

Pham Tuan Phan, chief executive of the Mekong River Commission, a body set up to mediate the conflicting priorities of upstream and downstream Mekong countries, called the Chinese move a “gesture of goodwill.”

China was embarking on unprecedented water diplomacy, declared Thailand’s English-language Nation newspaper. China’s Foreign Ministry said the government had decided to “overcome its own difficulties to offer emergency water flows.”

The Chinese move was hailed as progress because it was the first time it had notified downstream countries of its plans for the Mekong’s water level. But it also underlined the power China holds over a shared life-sustaining resource and the Mekong environment overall.

Ma Quang Trung, a department director at Vietnam’s Agriculture Ministry, said discharges from the Jinghong dam might help reduce fresh water shortages for 575,000 Vietnamese, but are unlikely to ease the drought overall. Vietnam is so far downstream that only a small portion of the discharged water will reach it. He blames the drought on El Nino and Mekong dams.

Many more dams are planned for the Mekong, including by China and landlocked Laos, which with Chinese support sees hydropower exports becoming the mainstay of its economy, one of Asia’s least developed.

Piaporn Deetes, a campaigner in Thailand for Rivers International, an advocacy group, scoffs at the idea that the Jinghong discharge was a selfless act by China to help its neighbors. She said China gets benefits such as electricity generation, and the temporarily higher water level makes for easier navigation on its section of the river.

The discharge also had disastrous consequences that were inevitable because millions who live along the Mekong and depend on it for their livelihoods were unaware water levels would suddenly rise.

River bank vegetable gardens were submerged and boats and fishing equipment swept away, said Deetes. Harvests of kaipen, a freshwater weed exported to Japan that is a large source of income for river communities, were destroyed.

Statement on The Youth’s Dream for Future Mekong

We, The Mekong Youth Assembly, a network of young environmental advocate groups and individuals from six Mekong countries, get together beside the Mekong River today. We witness challenges and difficulties our fellow youth advocates are facing to protect the environment and our beloved communities. We seek for like-minded friends to join the journey of the following dreams to reality:

1. We dream that we are encouraged to express our opinions freely in all aspects of any given development project. Our movement to stand up for responsible development, justice, non-discrimination, peace and equality are protected by law.

2. We dream that our right to participation in any decision making toward the fate of our rivers, our communities and our future must be respected.

3. We dream that today’s adults, especially those in power, would bear in mind that “you do not inherit the Earth from ancestors, you borrow it from us, your children”. Make sure our mother earth shall be returned to us with prosperous life elements. In this regard, always respectfully consider our lives.

We will put all efforts to protect the Mekong River which unites us here today spiritually and physically. We will continue on this journey together until our dreams come true.

In solidarity,

Mekong Youth Assembly
31 March 2016

Public consultations for Don Sahong dam commence

The first regional public consultation on the Don Sahong hydropower project took place in Pakxe town of Champassak province on Friday to further the Mekong River Commission’s prior consultation process.

Don Sahong channel where the proposed 260-megawatt hydropower project in the south of Laos is planned.

The meeting served as a forum for experts from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to share their concerns and pose questions about the proposed 260-megawatt run-of-river project in the south of Laos.

The forum was also open to civil society, non-governmental organisations, research institutes and regional and international organisations.

The public consultation is part of the transparency process by which the Lao government can share information about the merits of the hydropower project with all interested parties in the four countries.

About 100 people attended the regional public consultation, which was organised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

A site visit to Don Sahong was arranged on Thursday so the stakeholders could see the project for themselves and ask questions of the project staff, experts and the villagers who live near the site.

Lao Ministry of Energy and Mine’s Policy and Planning Department Director General Dr Daovong Phonekeo told Vientiane Times that “We have collected information about this project since 2007, notably the issues related to water flow, fish passage and water quality.

Surveys conducted by foreign experts enable us to explain to the participants that everything about the project has been done in a scientific manner.”

“We’re confident that at the end of the regional consultation, the participants will have more information and gain better understanding about the Don Sahong project. We hope that their concerns will be put to rest because we are being transparent and open with this information.”

This is the second time that the MRC has carried out the Prior Consultation process for a project along the Mekong River in Laos.

The first process conducted for the Xayaboury Hydropower Project in the north of Laos resulted in important improvements to that project, which is also a run-of-river scheme that requires no large reservoir.

Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat Mr Hans Guttman said: “As a result of the prior consultation for Xayaboury some recommendations from other member countries have been taken into account by Laos in the redesign of the Xayaboury project. But there were important lessons to be learnt.”

“… for the Don Sahong project, several national consultation/information sharing meetings have been organised by the respective National Mekong Committees and more are planned. In addition, we have the opportunity to carry out a public consultation at the regional level like today.”

The purpose of the Prior Consultation process is not to seek approval for a proposed project. Rather, it is a platform for Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, as notified countries, to raise issues of concern on potential effects the project may have on their territories, with technical review and analysis facilitated by the MRC Secretariat, he said.

In September 2013, the Lao government submitted the project proposal for Don Sahong Hydropower project under the notification process to the MRC Secretariat.

It (the government) later agreed to put the project under the prior consultation process in a move to allay concerns raised by its neighbours. The six-month prior consultation process will end on January 25, 2015.

The Lao PDR is committed to keeping alive the spirit of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which aims to promote comprehensive cooperation for sustainable development in the region.

Mekong Countries Voice Major Concerns Over Laos Dam

PAKSE, LAOS—A public consultation organized by the Mekong River Commission was held in Pakse, Laos, last week, where opponents continued to call for Laos to reconsider a controversial dam project.

Map of Mekong.
Map of Mekong.

Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation, a company tasked with building the Don Sahong dam, briefed regional participants on its social and environmental impacts, in the meeting on Friday.

But officials from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam remain skeptical of their findings of no significant impact or threat to fish population or migration.

The findings failed to address trans-boundary impacts, a main concern raised by environmentalists.

Cambodia, whose border is just two kilometers from the dam site, urged the commission to “educate” Mega First about the legal framework of such a controversial project and said there is no baseline data on the fish migrations or populations.

“For the sustainable development and preservation of the Mekong River Basin, we, the neighbors of the MRC, need a project that is beneficiary and does not affect other relevant states or that just has a minimal effect that is acceptable,” Kol Vathana, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said at the meeting.

Chaiyuth Sukhsri, a member of Thai National Mekong Committee, said Thailand is concerned about the dam site, which lies in a “special area.” “So we need a lot of information and require a lot of knowledge,” he said.

Vietnam, which has been voicing strong opposition to the project, urged the company to do more studies on the long-term impacts this may have on countries downstream.

“We need further monitoring time, like five or 10 years, to monitor how the fish migrate and how the channel is suitable, and that’s very important,” Nguyen Hong Phuong, deputy director-general of the Vietnamese National Mekong Committee, said. “We cannot have the premature conclusion that the channel is suitable for the fish to migrate.”

NGO representatives who were invited to the forum urged all governments to listen to concerns raised by their people, while Save the Mekong has called for a complete cancellation of the project. Environmental watchdog International Rivers issued a statement questioning the motives of the consultation forum, saying it would help legalize the project and allow it to go forward.

However, Mega First said it is still in negotiations with Laos and has not signed any agreement on the construction yet.

Lao officials, meanwhile, seem satisfied with the impact study.

In an interview with VOA Khmer, Daovong Phonekeo, director-general of Laos’ department of energy policy and planning, in the Ministry of Energy and Mines, said the country is aware of the concerns of its neighbors.

“But we have studied the project since 2006 and have a lot of data,” he said. “We’re very sure the mitigation measures we are going to do would have a minimal impact to the downstream and upstream countries.”

Activists slam Lao dam hearings

Civil society groups on Thursday criticised the Lao government over delays to public hearings for the controversial 260-megawatt Don Sahong hydropower dam.

The hearing, or “prior consultation meeting” will begin in Pakse today, more than four months after it was scheduled to get underway.

But activists said the exercise is likely to be fruitless and will serve only to justify the construction of the dam in Laos’ Champasak province.

Following pressure from groups concerned about the ecological impact of the dam, the Lao government agreed at a Mekong River Commission (MRC) meeting in June to organise the hearing process over a period of six months, beginning on July 25.

“The Lao government has clearly stated they intend to proceed with the Don Sahong dam, in spite of the ongoing prior consultation process,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers (IR). “With this attitude, it is difficult to see how the process can be anything more than a rubber stamp.”

Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have expressed concern about the potential trans-boundary impact of the dam. A Mekong agreement means the three countries are also required to consult people about the project.

Representatives of civil society and state officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam yesterday visited the dam site, where preparation for construction work began more than a year ago.

At the Second MRC summit in April, Cambodia and Vietnam called for the Don Sahong dam project to be delayed to allow for a trans-boundary impact assessment. The project has been criticised for lacking such a study.

Thai villagers living along Mekong basin have expressed fears the project may affect fish in the river.

“The prior consultation process for the Don Sahong dam has been set up to fail, visibly following the same pattern as the Xayaburi dam,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for IR.

The construction of the Xayaburi hydropower dam began in early 2012, before the government launched the prior consultation process for the 1,285-megawatt power generating facility.

The Thai Department of Water Resources has organised meetings on the Don Sahong project in five provinces. Meetings were held in Nakhon Phanom and Ubon Ratchathani this week, but locals said no documents were distributed to them in advance.