Lao Dams Muddying the Waters

Sebastian Strangio and Sam Rith, Phnom Penh Post
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Originally printed in Phnom Penh Post

A SPATE of new hydropower projects slated for construction in southern Laos could wreak havoc downstream in Cambodia, according to environmental groups, but international agreements governing the sustainable development of the Mekong River basin lack the capacity to address the trans-boundary impacts of the dams.

Six large dams are already under construction in Laos, with a further 12 at an advanced stage of planning, part of a long-term Lao government strategy to turn the country into the "battery of Asia" by exporting hydroelectricity to power-starved Thailand and Vietnam.

But some NGOs are concerned that Cambodia may be shouldering the social and environmental burdens of the projects while sharing few - if any - of the economic benefits.

Power Surge: The Impacts of Rapid Dam Development in Laos, a report released by International Rivers in September, argues that projects earmarked for the deep valleys of southern Laos are unsustainable and will have far-reaching effects across the border in Cambodia.

According to the report, the projects planned "will cause irreparable social, environmental and economic losses" that will "likely far outweigh any revenue or electricity benefits they would provide".

The report argues that the 600mw Sekong 4 dam, planned for the Sekong River, a key Mekong tributary (see map), could lead to "declines in aquatic resources in Laos and downstream areas of Cambodia, and even as far away as the mainstream Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam".

It also highlights problems with the planned Don Sahong (240-360mw) project, which will be situated on the Mekong mainstream near Khone Falls on the Lao border.

"The Don Sahong project would block the main channel that is passable by migratory fish year round in the Khone Falls area ... with devastating consequences for fisheries and fishery-based livelihoods ... throughout the wider Mekong region," the report states.

"Approval of the Don Sahong dam would set a dangerous precedent for the seven other risky projects under consideration for the lower Mekong mainstream."

Lack of notification

Despite the likely effects of the Lao dams, some claim that there has been little coordination between the two governments over the issue of trans-boundary impacts.

"[Don Sahong] will have a very negative impact on fisheries in Cambodia and Laos. But the Cambodian government said that they have not heard anything from the Lao government," said Ngy San, deputy executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia.

"In my opinion, the decision on the hydropower dams has not been consultative. It rests on a small group of people."

The Power Surge report found that even where environmental impact studies have been commissioned by the Lao government, they have ignored trans-boundary impacts.

"There have been insufficient cross-border investigations and dialogue about the dams, and no fieldwork or investigations have taken place in Cambodia," it said.

Kim Sangha, coordinator of the Sesan-Srepok-Sekong (3S) Protection Network in Ratanakkiri province, said Vietnam's Yali Falls dam on the Sesan river, which has affected local communities since its construction in 1993, illustrated the importance of transparency in the planning of dam developments.

"All the dams in Vietnam have lacked good designs, and there was a lack consultation with all the stakeholders in the region [and] between the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia," he said.

"If [the Laotians] don't learn from the Sesan cases, there will be serious impacts."

Sustainable development?

The coordination of regional hydropower development and the resolution of trans-boundary disputes is ostensibly handled by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), of which Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are members.

The Mekong Agreement, which established the commission in 1995, pledges the four governments to "promote in a constructive and mutually beneficial manner the sustainable development, utilisation, conservation and management of the Mekong River Basin".

However, scientists and environmental activists contacted by the Post said the commission lacked the political will to foster international dialogue about the social and environmental effects of dam developments.

"The MRC doesn't have enough capacity to force governments to apply best practices or international standards," said Kim Sangha.

"In reality, the MRC is ineffective in terms of cultivating development partners in the region, including NGOs, governments and donors."

Carl Middleton, Mekong program coordinator for International Rivers, said that national interests often short-circuited the commission's ability to pursue sustainability goals.

"The MRC's ability to enforce the 1995 agreement is based on the willingness of the four member governments to respect the provisions of the agreement," he said.

"There appears to be no reasoned river basin planning process taking place at either the national or regional level," he added.

Ngy San agreed that the divergence between the commission's goals and those of its member states created unavoidable contradictions.

"The reality is that the forming of the MRC was just a way for separate countries to look out for their own interests, rather than that of the Greater Mekong region," he said.

"There should be a strong mechanism to implement the agreement since each of the countries have different perceptions of what [it] means."

Another issue is that the Mekong Agreement's stipulations do not apply as forcefully to the river's tributaries, where many of the Lao dam projects are planned.

"On major tributaries ...  where trans-boundary impacts have already occurred from hydropower projects built in Vietnam, the MRC system has proved itself inadequate to negotiate redress for downstream affected communities in Cambodia," Middleton said.

He added that the Don Sahong dam, as the first dam project planned for the lower reaches of the Mekong mainstream, will be a key test of the commission's commitment to sustainable development.

However, Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC), said the 1995 agreement had been strengthened by efforts to encourage regional cooperation - including dialogue with non-MRC members Myanmar and China - and improved implementation of its aims.

"We have many programs in place to solve problems and share the benefits of the development of these potential resources," he said.

He cited the commission's data and information sharing procedures, which aim to "promote understanding and cooperation among the MRC member countries", and the consultative meeting held in Vientiane in September, as indications that the commission welcomes input on the impacts of dam developments.

Pich Dun said the Cambodians had entered into dialogue with the Lao government over its plans, but added that information on some projects could not be provided until feasibility studies had been completed.

"Our government - based on consultations with the Lao government and with various stakeholders and NGOs - is very worried about the development of hydropower on the [Mekong] mainstream and in other parts of Laos," he said.

"So far, they have provided information on these development projects, [and] they have sent a list of their projects to the CNMC," he said, adding that no formal talks over the projects have been started yet.

He added that the Don Sahong dam was a particular concern, but that negotiations  would begin once the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment of the project had been completed.

While recognising the commission's efforts, environmentalists said the four member states should go further to ensure development is balanced against its social and ecological costs.

"There is an urgent need to prioritise projects through a process that is accountable to the public," Middleton said.

"This process would differentiate between projects where benefits outweigh the costs ... and projects where the costs are too great and should be left aside."

But Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L Stimson Centre in Washington, DC, said the regional forum of the MRC would likely take a back seat to face-to-face negotiations.

"My own guess is that they ultimately will address these issues bilaterally," he said, adding that he expected China to act as a broker between Cambodia and Laos - a better solution, ultimately, than none at all.

"The Mekong Delta will likely suffer the greatest impact if these projects go ahead. I'm pretty sure that not all of them will, but it only takes a couple to kill the fisheries," he said.

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