Vientiane Capital, Lao PDR, 5th May 2017
A major infrastructure project on the Mekong mainstream, the Pak Beng Hydropower Project in Oudomxay Province of Laos, is currently undergoing a prior consultation process of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The Commission is serious about this process and to produce meaningful engagement and recommendations that would lead to betterment of the project if it proceeds and the overall sustainable development of the basin.
First, we have to be clear about the mandate and roles of MRC. The Mekong River Commission is an inter-governmental organisation of member states, created by its member states, for its member states. Its mandate, established by the 1995 Mekong Agreement, is clear: “to serve as a regional platform for regional cooperation on the management of water-related resources for sustainable development of the Mekong river basin”. The principles underlying cooperation are also clear: cooperative management of the common river resources, sovereign equality and territorial integrity and reasonable and equitable development.
The MRC is not a regulatory body for the management of water resources. For its twenty-two years of existence, the MRC has built up an impressive knowledge base, procedures, guidelines and strategies for the Mekong that are the envy of other rivers experiencing tensions and disputes. The five procedures dealing with maintenance of flows, water quality, water use monitoring, data and information sharing, and consultation on infrastructure projects have no equal in other developing basins.
One of these five procedures, the Prior Consultation, or officially the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNCPA), provides member countries the opportunity to review impacts of the proposed project on neighbouring countries and agree on mitigating measures. The process is neither a right of any country to veto a project, nor it is a right of any country to proceed with a proposed use of the river without taking into account the other’s rights and concerns. It is a cooperative approach. The MRC reaffirms that it treats both of these aspects equally important. The MRC agreement and procedures still work because member countries are still notifying, consulting, and considering views from one another and from broader stakeholders. If one looks back at the first regional stakeholder forum on the Pak Beng Hydropower Project (PBHPP), the MRC was documenting stakeholder views and showing how they were being addressed in the Technical Review Report to be submitted for the Joint Committee.
In its preliminary technical review, the MRC Secretariat experts note many issues regarding the design and potential adverse impacts of the Pak Beng project, including fish passage, downstream sediment transport, and aquatic habitats. We also note that the main project documents are only at the feasibility stage, and final design will make improvements as clarified by the Lao PDR government and the project developer during consultations so far.
Having said that, the PNCPA is a living process with room for improvement and the positive aspects can be built on. Case in point, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Hydropower Projects, which were the very first cases that underwent the prior consultation process and were test cases for the MRC’s hydropower diplomacy. For both cases, information was shared, technical assessments made, discussions and exchanges held, and the developers responded to the comments and took into account some of the recommendations. There is value in all of these. However, the MRC’s Joint Committee as well as Council could not reach a unanimous conclusion and was eventually referred to the diplomatic processes. Although this was unfortunate, it is still in compliance of the 1995 Agreement.
Furthermore, in the case of Xayaburi, the process did produce changes to the design of the project with additional large investments by the Lao government and developer. And for the Don Sahong case, after witnessing first hand the project plan and improvements made during visit to the hydropower project in early January 2017, the Cambodian Prime Minister has publicly stated that Cambodia is not opposing the project. In this context, Cambodia and Lao PDR have now agreed to implement a joint project on the Khone Falls including monitoring of Don Sahong. This shows that despite different opinions, the MRC member countries continue to maintain their dialogue and consult each other about project development, monitoring and benefit sharing.
These two cases provide invaluable lessons and areas of improvement of the process itself. Equally important is to build on what has worked well. Going forward, the MRC will set up joint monitoring that all countries agreed to including Laos. This is the way to know if predicted impacts will arise and what can be done.
Finally, the PNCPA process is not ideally the place to decide whether a project is good or bad. The MRC has a parallel process called “Basin Development Planning” (BDP) that has produced a number of studies and assessments including the 2011 Assessment of Basin-wide Development Scenarios. From this cumulative impact assessment of the countries ‘plans, we know that the planned mainstream dams including the Xayaburi and Pak Beng hydropower projects above Vientiane may have less of a significant impact on the Mekong Delta than the ones planned below. The impacts could not be measured with certainty though due to various intervening factors such as climate change and other development sectors. The Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River (in short the Council Study) will update the BDP findings with latest results later this year. The findings will support further planning, decision making and implementation of future mainstream development plans.
In short, the MRC has and is committed in fulfilling its role as a scientific organization providing objective technical advice as well as the only regional platform for water diplomacy where differences can be managed and resolved. We are committed to continuing to improve the process, to engage stakeholders and incorporate their voices, and to develop post-consultation plans in terms of following up on recommendations, monitoring, information sharing and reporting.
The MRC is more indispensable than ever and there is no organization that does what we do. It is the best deal in town and all should promote its work.
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