Two Years Forward, Three Steps Back: Mekong Dam Study Reaches Deadlock

Thursday, December 12, 2013

As the Mekong-Japan Summit approaches, regional governments have yet to resolve significant knowledge gaps on the impacts of Mekong dams

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam continues despite the fact that the risks of the project have yet to be fully understood
Construction of the Xayaburi Dam continues despite the fact that the risks of the project have yet to be fully understood
International Rivers

Bangkok, Thailand: On Saturday, Japan will host the Fifth Mekong-Japan Summit between the leaders of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar in Tokyo. The meeting marks two years since the Mekong governments first agreed to work together to carry out a study on the impacts of dams on the Lower Mekong River’s mainstream, commonly known as the MRC Council Study. The study was prompted by strong regional and international concerns over the transboundary impacts of the Xayaburi Dam, the first of eleven dams planned on the Mekong mainstream. However since the summit, the study being led by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has faced a series of setbacks, including a lack of consensus over the content, which has contributed to significant delays in its implementation.

“The Mekong Council Study has clearly reached deadlock, two years on and there is nothing to show for it. What appeared to be a step forward in regional cooperation and responsible decision-making for the future of the Mekong has proved to be yet another stumbling block for the Mekong countries,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers. “Meanwhile Laos is forging ahead with construction on the Xayaburi and other Mekong mainstream dams and the risks of these projects have yet to be fully understood.”

Significant knowledge gaps remain in understanding the full impact of a cascade of eleven dams proposed on the Mekong mainstream. The 2010 MRC commissioned  Strategic Environmental Assessment warned that more than 50 studies are still required before responsible decision-making can take place. This has led to repeated requests, as late as January 2013, by the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam for further study of the Xayaburi Dam’s transboundary impacts before making a regional decision over whether the Xayaburi and other Mekong mainstream dams should be built. The requests have been disregarded, as Laos has unilaterally proceeded with the construction of the Xayaburi Dam and recently announced its intent to build the Don Sahong Dam, the second Mekong mainstream dam.

“Rather than making scientifically sound decisions, powerful commercial interests have been allowed to ransack the Mekong River’s rich resources by building damaging hydropower dams which have yet to demonstrate proven and effective mitigation measures,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers. “Until the MRC Council Study is completed, Laos has the responsibility to honor the agreement made during the summit and address the concerns expressed by Cambodia and Vietnam. The message is clear - all Mekong dam construction should be halted until responsible decision making can take place.”

By unilaterally moving forward with destructive dams such as Xayaburi and Don Sahong, Laos is placing the future of the Mekong and the lives of millions of people in jeopardy, as the Mekong has become a testing ground for mitigation technologies that remain unproven to effectively mitigate the projects’ expected environmental impacts. Adequate baseline data for the two dam sites have yet to be collected.

“Science can no longer take a back seat in decisions over the region’s shared resource, it’s simply too risky. The Mekong governments must immediately reaffirm their commitment to work together to sustainably manage the Mekong River by calling for a halt to all dam construction until the MRC Council Study is completed,” continued Ms. Trandem. “The study is too important to be delayed and forgotten. If the MRC is unable to resolve the problems faced with implementing the study, then a new platform for discussion and dialogue over these projects is urgently needed.”

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