Vientiane, Lao PDR, 28th May 2009
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has emphasised the need to proceed carefully in considering dam projects on the mainstream Mekong River, as a wide ranging assessment of Mekong hydropower development begins this week.
"The Mekong River system is a highly productive and valuable, but at the same time, fragile resource," said Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat. "Before any decisions are made to implement mainstream hydropower schemes in the lower Mekong basin, the four lower Mekong countries have agreed to work together to cultivate a better scientific understanding of the wider development impact and to ensure that private sector proposals for new dams are guided by principles of economic, environmental and social sustainability."
Mr. Bird's words come as the MRC launches a strategic assessment of the proposed mainstream developments in Lao PDR, Cambodia and on the Lao-Thai border. The influence of upstream dams in China on the Lancang-Mekong River will also be included in the Strategic Environmental Assessment. The MRC will use information presented by the study to improve its ability to guide member states in their decision processes and dialogue.
The MRC says that the effect of the global financial crisis in Southeast Asia has provided a "breathing space," allowing the four lower Mekong countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam) to take time to better assess how mainstream projects will affect the interests of all people in the Mekong River basin.
"The MRC is faced with perhaps its most important strategic challenge since the Mekong Agreement was signed in 1995 because of increased interest in building hydropower dams in the mainstream of the lower Mekong River Basin," said Mr. Bird.
While there are already 3,235 MW of electricity being generated by hydropower on Mekong tributaries - and dams with an operational capacity of 3,209 MW are under construction, what is new is the interest of the private sector in seriously considering developing hydropower schemes on the mainstream. The Mekong is one of the most active regions in the world for hydropower with eight existing or planned Mekong mainstream dams in Yunan Province in China (where the Mekong is called the Lancang River) and 11 proposed by Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand – all in various stages of investigation or feasibility study.
As set out in the 1995 Mekong Agreement, MRC member countries are committed to undergoing a formal approval process prior to any decision on building dams on the river. The process must balance the interests of people's livelihoods, as well as the energy, fisheries, tourism, and navigation industries. Projects being studied for development in the lower Mekong Basin come to the Commission for consultation, with a view to assisting member countries to reach consensus on the critical and sensitive issues of their shared water resources and the balanced development of the river.
Past studies undertaken by the MRC have shown that dams can have both a positive and negative impact, for example, MRC analysis shows that large storage dams in the upper Mekong basin can increase dry season flows and reduce flood levels , which can benefit water users. But at the same time the changed flow patterns can reduce fisheries yield. The largest impacts of the proposed mainstream dams in the lower Mekong Basin apart from local resettlement issues are likely to be significant changes in fish passage and migration, aquatic habitats, sediment flow leading to erosion and loss of nutrients.
More than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin depend on the river system for food, transport and economic activity. Freshwater fisheries in the basin have a commercial value of at least US$2 billion per year, making it the world's most valuable inland fishery. Eighty percent of the animal protein for Mekong inhabitants comes from the Mekong, with 70 percent of the commercial catch being long distance migrant species; the kind of fish species that the MRC says could be severely affected by dams on the river.
Rapidly increasing demand for electricity in the region over the last decade and the global shift to reduce consumption of fossil fuels in power generation has led to increased pressure to develop hydropower schemes in the Mekong Basin as a renewable source of energy and foreign exchange earnings that in-turn can finance much-needed social development programmes. However, 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 about 5,000 Megawatts from an earlier estimated figure of 13,000 which reflects the impact of the global economic downturn.
The MRC has been discussing with Chinese experts technical cooperation to assess downstream river changes due to hydropower development. China and Myanmar are dialogue partners and take an active role in information sharing and co-operation with the four member countries; Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam.
The Strategic Environmental Assessment mentioned in the story above will build on the work undertaken by various MRC programmes, including the fisheries, navigation and agricultural programmes as well as its existing Basin Development Planning process. Country-level consultation process will be through the National Mekong Committees (NMCs) and include engagement with a wide selection of civil society, private sector and government views. It will look at (i) Mekong mainstream hydropower development in the context of regional energy planning; (ii) affected people; (iii) fisheries and barrier effects of dams on fish migration; (iv) maintaining ecological integrity and biodiversity; (v) river morphology and sediment balance, and (vi) water quality and salinity intrusion on the Mekong River.
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. It deals with all river related 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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