MRC Joint Committee takes action to improve hydropower design, boost cross-border cooperation
Vientiane, Lao PDR, 4 October 2022 — The governing board of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has approved a milestone document that clarifies guidelines for how to design hydropower projects, to minimize impact on ecosystems and communities along Southeast Asia’s largest waterway.
Beyond this revised Preliminary Design Guidance (PDG), the MRC Joint Committee also agreed on a Guideline on Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TbEIA). Given the transboundary nature of a river flowing through the four MRC Member Countries – Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam – a TbEIA would measure how a project affects a neighbour.
The agreement allows the TbEIA to be tested and applied by countries and developers, with MRC’s technical support. It gauges how a hydropower dam or any large water infrastructure project, such as irrigation diversion or navigation work affects issues like water flow, sediment transport, water quality, and fisheries, which may adversely impact river ecosystems and vulnerable communities at the transnational or regional level.
“This is a historic breakthrough for MRC cooperation after years of discussion. The two guidelines point out exactly what to do in minimizing cross-border environmental impacts,” says Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the MRC Secretariat. “Members will see how beneficial the guidance is, not just to their own country and local communities, but in working together with their neighbours.”
Discussions of the TbEIA actually began 18 years ago, in 2004, when the term “Transboundary” was added to acknowledge that no river-related issue is limited to one country’s borders. The TbEIA has since been a topic of many regional and national meetings and consultations. This year, it was recommended that the TbEIA be tested voluntarily and with MRC Secretariat’s support. That spurred momentum for the MRC Joint Committee acceptance, at its 54th biannual meeting last week in Lao capital city Vientiane.
With the TbEIA tool now available to be used – to supplement each country’s own environmental impact laws – the intergovernmental MRC expects the trust-building to continue among its Members.
As for the Preliminary Design Guidance for hydropower projects, it has also undergone a long process of negotiation and clarification. The first PDG was approved in 2009, in line with each country’s original commitments to the 1995 Mekong Agreement. It covered six issues: sediment transport and geomorphology, water quality, aquatic life, fish and fisheries, dam safety, and navigation.
Yet, over the years, Mekong stakeholders identified “gaps” in the PDG that were also transborder issues: hydrology and hydraulics; and “riparian communities and river-based livelihood.” These have implications for the millions of fishing and farming families who somehow rely on the Mekong for daily sustenance.
For example, hydrology and hydraulics are critical for how they regulate water flow, through the volume of water released or withheld. Not only can that affect hydropower projects downriver, but too much of a disturbance can negatively impact both the ecosystem and the socio-economics of millions of Southeast Asians who depend on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries, in some form.
This PDG 2022 is the culmination of four years of discussion, which incorporates the MRC’s lessons learned over the past decade, as well international best practices in how to strike the right balance. No standards were lost, however. The PDG is one of the most well-known and frequently used MRC guidance by hydropower project developers in the countries.
For current hydropower projects, the updated PDG can provide guidance for operations. For incoming projects, it can offer guidance for good design, plus effective mitigation measures regarding construction and operation.
“This PDG is gearing us toward projects that are both economically viable and environmentally friendly,” says Kittikhoun. “More protective of the river’s resources, while safeguarding of people’s livelihoods.”
The MRC Joint Committee meets twice a year to discuss management, organization, and cooperation matters.
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Note to Editors:
The MRC is an intergovernmental organization established in 1995 to boost regional dialogue and cooperation in the Lower Mekong River Basin. Based on the Mekong Agreement among Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, the MRC serves as both a regional platform for water diplomacy and a knowledge hub – to manage water resources and support sustainable development of the region.