Global economic crisis provides opportunities for sustainable development says Mekong body

Bangkok, Thailand, 27th Mar 2009

As the effect of the global financial crisis impacts Southeast Asia, it is providing more time for the four countries of the Lower Mekong Basin to ensure private sector proposals for new hydropower dams are planned with environmental sustainability in mind says the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

As demand projections for energy are scaled down in the short term the rapid acceleration in Mekong hydropower proposals seen last year is also slowing. But according to the MRC, hydropower remains an important renewable source of electricity for the region with projects in one country satisfying the electricity needs of its neighbours while the revenues earned can be used to stimulate national and local development programmes.

"While the global economic downturn is having an effect on trade and investment, it also highlights the importance of cooperation and collective approaches to problem solving," said Thai Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment, H.E. Mr. Kuwit Khunkitti, addressing regional government representatives at the MRC’s annual Joint Committee meeting amid Thai celebrations of World Water Day this week.

"MRC and its member countries can use this short breathing space before demand picks up again to strengthen the strategic planning framework and fully incorporate sustainability considerations. It is important to ensure that the dams that are built are done so in a way that recognizes the extensive use already made of the river’s natural resources and livelihoods of those that depend on it for their survival," said Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat, also in Bangkok.

"Rapidly increasing demand for electricity in the region over the last decade has led to increased pressure to develop hydropower schemes in the Mekong Basin. Dams are by their nature controversial, but at the same time offer significant benefits," said Mr. Bird.

H.E. Mr. Kuwit Khunkitti also reiterated the MRC's role in "representing the interest of our four member countries in balancing the use of the Mekong’s resources for countries' mutual benefit and people's well-being."

To date, 11 schemes have been proposed for the mainstream of the Lower Mekong Basin and many more are planned for the tributaries in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam. Under its 1995 Agreement, the MRC provides a framework within which such projects are considered by its member states. "In doing so, we look at all three dimensions of sustainability, social, environmental and economic, for example the Commission has just embarked on a Strategic Environmental Assessment of dams proposed for the Mekong mainstream," said Mr Bird.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) recently announced it has reduced the amount of power it plans to import over the next 15 years, to 5,036 Megawatts from an earlier estimated figure of 13,244, which reflects the impact of the global economic downturn. Some hydropower projects planned for the tributaries, such as the Nam Ngum Three and Nam Theun One projects in Lao PDR, have consequently been delayed.

According to the MRC, the most important potential environmental and social impact of hydropower schemes relates to the disruption of fish migration and reduced fish stocks for the 60 million Mekong inhabitants that depend on the river system for food. This issue along with other potential impacts will be addressed by member countries prior to any decision to realize the river’s significant hydropower potential. In total, the MRC has estimated the sustainable hydropower potential of the basin at around 30,000 megawatts.

Apart from considering hydropower and the global financial crisis, the MRC Joint Committee at its meeting endorsed an initiative on adaptation to climate change, agreed on a more inclusive policy for engaging with non-governmental stakeholders, and provided guidance on the ongoing cooperative basin development planning process and formulation of the organization’s Strategic Plan for 2011-2016.

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Notes to Editors

The MRC is the intergovernmental body responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin whose members include Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. In dealing with these challenges, it looks across all sectors including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management and preserving important ecosystems. Superimposed on these are the future effects of more extreme floods, prolonged drought and sea level rise associated with climate change. In providing its advice, MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogue among governments, the private sector and civil society on these challenges.

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