04 Jul 2018
Vientiane, Lao PDR, 4 July 2018 – In their efforts to better understand various approaches in managing and operating multi-purpose dams that could be adapted and applied regionally, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council Members, Joint Committee Members and Secretariat senior staffers conducted an exchange visit to the Rhone river basin and the Compagnie National du Rhône (CNR), the French public company responsible for the development and management of the River Rhone in France.
The visit, taking place from 4 to 7 June 2018, saw 13 MRC delegates visit three large multi-purpose dams, including Genissiat – the oldest dam in the Rhone – and of Logis-Neuf and the dam that generates the most power in the Rhone, the Bollene dam. The delegates also visited different CNR facilities, including its headquarters, control and coordination center (COCPIT), laboratory for hydraulic and sediment modeling and testing, and remote-control center for navigation.
The participants highly appreciated the approach that CNR took to manage and operate the dams it built from a comprehensive and whole-of-river basin perspective, which must meet three equally important objectives: power generation, navigation and irrigation. This means the two latter objectives have to be met even if it means generating less power. The Mekong could definitely learn from this as it further develops its projects.
MRC CEO Mr. Pham Tuan Phan says that given the CRN’s experience “even in run-of-river projects, it’s important not only to consider hydropower but also to optimize navigation and irrigation like using pumping”. He also adds that with more projects on the mainstream, a main control center is necessary for the Mekong.
“As more and more infrastructures are built, it’s critical to put in place a centralized monitoring, coordination and control center like the CNR’s COCPIT that is able to monitor, forecast and operate assets as well as sell energy on the markets,” CEO Pham says.
The coordinated construction and operation of the dams and locks makes navigation on the Rhone impressive. Once the 19 cascade dams and 14 locks were built on the whole Rhone, navigation became possible all year round. Without the cascade, the Rhone was not navigable for three months every year due to fierce currents, shallows, floods in spring and early summer when the ice was melting, and droughts in late summer. A navigation coordination center, like that of the CNR is needed to operate a series of locks to optimize navigation, increase safety, and reduce human resources.
The delegates also learned it is still possible to incorporate new fish pass facilities into existing dams although this costs more than when the pass is included when a dam is constructed.
For example, the Rochemaure and Pouzin dams were built more than 50 years ago without any fish pass facilities, but five years ago included the fish passes to respond to the environmental objectives required by the European Water Framework Directive. The inclusion cost between two to 10 million Euro (approximately US$2.33 – 11.66 million). But after one year of onsite monitoring, whose data are only accessible by an environmental association, it was observed that some 35 fish species and 40,000 to 70,000 individual fish were found to have passed the fish ladders.
Transboundary sediment management was also the epicenter of the visit. The delegates learned that effective transboundary sediment management requires close coordination between riparian states (France and Switzerland who share the Rhone) and their dam agencies, consultation with different water users and stakeholders, and technical specifications, operational principles and field monitoring.
Upon their return, the visiting Secretariat senior staffers shared what they had learned from the visit with some 40 staff members and donor representatives at a brown-bag lunch event, a one-hour long session organized monthly at the MRC Secretariat on current issues related to sustainable development of Mekong River basin.
“I think it was very interesting and educational,” MRC-GIZ Cooperation Program Junior Advisor Ms. Erinda Pubill Panen says, adding that an information sharing session like this is good “because it really helps me gain an overview of what people are doing at the MRCS and how they exchange knowledge with others”.
The Rhone is about 10 times smaller than the Mekong with 80,000 km2 in basin size, 500 km in length, and annual discharge of 1650 m3/s. Its hydrological profile is similar to that of the downstream stretch of the Upper Mekong (Lancang), which is ideal for hydropower development.
Founded in 1933 as a state enterprise, CNR has been entrusted by the French government to develop and operate the Rhone with a concession from 1934. The company has been engaging in the Mekong developments for over two decades, starting with a study in 1994 to develop a master plan for the Mekong mainstream hydropower. It has also worked with the MRC on new locks for potential mainstream dams and navigation safety measures and with the Lao government to provide peer-review of mainstream projects, including Xaiyaburi, Don Sahong, Pak Beng and lately Pak Lay, before undergoing the MRC Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement.