Mekong officials discuss environmental mitigation for mainstream dams

Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, 28th Jun 2010

Environmental and hydropower experts will be meeting in Ho Chi Minh City over the next two days to discuss an assessment of the environmental and social impact of the 12 hydropower dams proposed for construction on the mainstream lower Mekong.

The MRC commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of Proposed Mainstream Hydropower Dams in the Lower Mekong is due for release in August this year and this meeting will inform its final report. Consultants working on the SEA are expected to recommend a range of possible measures to Mekong countries in order to address both the development opportunities and concerns over the impact of the proposed projects. The MRC says that this will feed into subsequent discussions among MRC Member Countries Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam as to whether or not to go ahead with such schemes, and if so, under what conditions.

“A broad range of the possible avoidance, minimisation and mitigation measures that will be up for discussion at the meeting include how key uncertainties are addressed and how countries view measures to attenuate for the potential cost to fisheries and other livelihoods in light of the financial and other significant benefits of the dams,” said Voradeth Phonekeo Manager of the MRC’s Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower in HCMC today. “There will inevitably be discussion on mitigation measures to ensure a fair distribution of costs and benefits should any dams on the mainstream Mekong go ahead.”

Some of the strategies that have been suggested, which will be up for discussion over coming days include the relative merits of mainstream dams over an accelerated programme of tributary hydropower projects or other electricity supply alternatives, and prioritising certain areas that would lead to lower levels of impact and mitigation measures for specific impact, such as fish migration and sediment-nutrient management says the MRC.

“Countries along the river will also need to strengthen their co-management of fisheries as river-flood plain fish would come under pressure from the dams proposed. There will also be a need to develop a consistent design approach to navigation locks, spillways and measures to ensure fish migration for example,” said Mr. Phonekeo.

On the benefits side, the electricity produced would have significant impacts on reducing electricity generation from fossil fuels and meet the countries’ rapidly increasing demands - while providing foreign exchange earnings to finance rural and social development projects says the MRC.

“When we analyse these projects for a range of future development scenarios, we can see negative as well as positive impacts. Dams can cause an increase in erosion, inundate important ecological habitats and redistribute water flow on a daily and seasonal basis. What we can’t predict as easily, but have been spending a lot of time to understand better is the effect that such proposed mainstream dams could have on fish migration and numbers, and ultimately – on the people that depend upon them that live in the river system,” says Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat.

Twelve hydropower dams are currently being studied by private sector developers for the mainstream of the Mekong under MOUs signed by the governments. The MRC says that the 1995 Mekong Agreement, signed by Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, requires that such projects are discussed extensively among all four countries prior to any decision being taken. In anticipation of any future notification for such consultation on a mainstream scheme the Strategic Environmental Assessment is providing the basin-wide assessment of all 12 schemes and a framework for that project-specific discussion to take place once a project is formally notified to the MRC under the Agreement.

“That discussion, facilitated by MRC, will consider the full range of social, environmental and cross?sector development impacts within the Lower Mekong Basin,” said Mr. Bird. “MRC has already carried out extensive studies on the consequences for fisheries and people’s livelihoods and this information is widely available. The SEA provides the necessary broader understanding of the opportunities and risks of such development.”

So far, none of the prospective developments have been officially notified to the MRC although this process of prior consultation required under the Mekong Agreement is expected to start soon.

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 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 up to 40 percent of the catch being from migrant species

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Notes to Editors

For more detailed information on the impacts that are to be addressed, see the draft SEA report here: http://www.mrcmekong.org/ISH/SEA-Baseline/SEA_impacts_assessment_report_Discussion_Draft-15May.pdf

If you are interested in attending any part of the meeting mentioned above or require a list of participants, please contact Voradeth Phonekeo, Manager, Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower: voradeth@mrcmekong.org for details and a full agenda.

The Strategic Environmental Assessment mentioned in the story above 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 SEA Avoidance, Enhancement and Mitigation phase is the next to final phase of assessment in the SEA process and culminates in a regional workshop in Ho Chi Minh City (28-29 June, 2010). This draft discussion paper for avoidance, mitigation and enhancement presents preliminary consideration concerning the opportunities to avoid or mitigate the risks associated with LMB mainstream hydropower and to enhance the benefits. Based on this discussion and the previous phases of the SEA the final report will be prepared and submitted to the MRCS.

For the purposes of the assessment:

  • Avoidance: the complete avoidance of one or more potentially significant adverse impacts arising from one or more proposed LMB mainstream schemes.
  • Mitigation: the reduction in the intensity or coverage of an impact if one or more projects go ahead.
  • Enhancement: improving the benefits derived from project development (enhancement related to improving development effectiveness, management of risk, regional and local distribution of benefits.)

The Mekong is one of the most active regions in the world for hydropower with eight existing or planned Mekong mainstream dams in Yunnan Province in China and at least 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 consultation 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.

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 this challenge, 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, the MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogue among governments, the private sector and civil society on these challenges.

For more information

Mr Damian Kean, Interim Communication Advisor
Tel: +856 56120695 or +856 21 263 263 Ext. 4703
Email: damian@mrcmekong.org

Mr Khy Lim, Communication Officer
Tel: +856 20 5622 8131
Email: khy@mrcmekong.org

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