PR | Course Change on the Mekong Needed Now for a Just and Sustainable Future

Thursday, April 5, 2018

April 5, 2018 

Today, the Prime Ministers of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam meet in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit. The meeting follows a two-day International Conference hosted by the MRC this week in the lead-up to the Summit. The MRC Summit is convened every four years. According to the MRC, its purpose is to achieve agreement on strategies to address major challenges and opportunities facing the Mekong Basin, now and into the future.

On the occasion of the 3rd MRC Summit, International Rivers makes the following statement: 

“A major focus for discussions this week at the MRC’s International Conference was the recently released MRC Council Study. The Council Study aims to provide an objective scientific assessment of costs and benefits of existing and planned water infrastructure, in particular hydropower dams, in the Lower Mekong Basin. 

The Council Study findings demonstrate that the series of eleven large hydropower dams on the Mekong River's lower mainstream, and 120 tributary dams planned by 2040, pose a serious threat to the ecological health and economic vitality of the region. Major detrimental impacts resulting from current hydropower plans will in turn produce massive trade-offs between water, energy and food. Predicted impacts include, by 2040; a 30-40% decrease in Mekong fisheries - a loss of about 1 million tons per year - and a staggering 97% reduction in the sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta. These impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were also central in the conference discussions. Access to water is widely recognized as fundamental to achieving other SDGs, including the elimination of poverty and hunger, securing health and wellbeing, and reducing inequality. Achieving sustainable development in the Lower Mekong Basin is dependent on the availability of natural capital and the preservation of biodiversity. Particularly important are healthy soils, watershed and riparian forests, and seasonally flowing rivers to support the world’s largest inland fishery. Current plans for large-scale hydropower dams are certain to decrease resilience, increase vulnerability, and reduce sustainability in each of the Lower Mekong member countries. 

Given the extremely high trade-offs and threats, why are planned large-scale hydropower projects going forward on the Mekong mainstream and important tributaries within the basin? 

Statements by Lower Mekong leaders have lauded the potential of hydropower to contribute to macro-economic growth. Hydropower dams would benefit the four countries differently, however. Thailand emerges as the main beneficiary of Lao mainstream dams and Vietnam as a key beneficiary of mainstream dams in Cambodia due to planned energy imports. From a macro-economic perspective, many of the economic benefits related to mainstream hydropower would in fact flow to investor countries outside of the Lower Mekong Basin, such as China, Malaysia, and South Korea. The costs of the projects would be born primarily by fishing and farming communities along the Mekong corridor. 

Despite the significant impacts on regional food security and livelihoods, planning and decision-making processes for hydropower projects lacks public participation, transparency and accountability. The Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams on the Mekong mainstream in Laos are now nearing completion, yet comprehensive information on these projects has not been made publicly available in accordance with MRC guidelines, despite repeated requests from communities, civil society groups, development partners and downstream countries. Promises of public disclosure have not been honored. This includes details of project designs and assessments demonstrating how mitigation measures such as fish passages will prevent the destruction of Mekong basin fisheries and other impacts on the river ecosystem. 

The MRC’s vision is an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River Basin. Following on from the 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and its recommendations for more detailed assessment of impacts, the Council Study has shown that the costs of the dams will be dire for Mekong countries’ sustainable development and their economies. It is now time for the Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese member governments to take up the findings and recommendations of the Council Study and ensure that they inform policy and practice.  

To date, decisions on hydropower projects have been made by member country governments on a project-by-project basis, without regard to basin-wide impacts. The lower Mekong governments must now ensure that the findings of the Council Study, which provides a basin-wide assessment of the cumulative losses and trade-offs inherent in these projects, meaningfully inform decisions on future projects. Involving all stakeholders in decision-making will be critical to successful negotiations and to achieving solutions that protect the environmental wealth of the Mekong, while supporting livelihoods of river communities and national economies. 

Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, together with demand-side management and energy efficiency measures, present increasingly viable and cost-competitive energy alternatives to large-scale and destructive hydropower projects. The Council Study urges MRC member countries to give serious consideration to the impacts and trade-offs identified and to examine emerging energy technologies as alternatives to planned hydropower developments. By adopting national energy policies that prioritize investment in non-hydropower renewables, Mekong regional governments have the opportunity to decide on a future pathway for the region that supports truly sustainable growth, while preserving the vital resources and biodiversity of the Mekong River that are critical to the region’s future.

At this 3rd MRC Summit, we call on the leaders of the lower Mekong governments to recognize the important findings and recommendations of the Council Study and to urge a moratorium on further hydropower construction within the Mekong Basin until a regional study of renewable energy technologies and alternatives is completed."  

Media contacts: 

Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia Program Director 
International Rivers,

Sabrina Gyorvary, Mekong Program Coordinator 
International Rivers