Mekong River Commission agrees to let Japan conduct impact studies
siem reap city – The Mekong River Commission (MRC) agreed yesterday to delay a decision on Laos’ proposal to build the first hydropower dam on the Lower Mekong River in order to allow Japan to conduct further environmental impact studies on the dam project.
Although Cambodian officials welcomed the outcome, downstream countries Cambodia and Vietnam—the strongest opponents of the controversial Xayaburi dam —were unable to get Laos to suspend the project for an extensive period of time.
MRC Council negotiations between the water and environment ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand took several hours, and a decision finally came out in the early evening.
“The council meeting has agreed…to prepare the request for assistance from Japan to support [and] conduct further studies on the impact of any development project on the Mekong River,” Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, told reporters.
“Construction [of the Xayaburi dam] would not start until we have a clear [study] result,” Mr. Navuth said, adding that he was unaware of how long it would take to carry out the required impact studies.
He said the agreement was a direct result of verbal discussions held by the four prime ministers of the MRC governments on the sidelines of an Asean meeting in Bali last month, during which they discussed the construction of hydropower dams on the Mekong River.
“The four prime ministers, the four Mekong leaders, have agreed to ask Japan to provide their assistance to carry out studies in this region,” he said.
Japan is a major donor in MRC countries, and in 2009, it launched the Green Mekong Initiative to help all Mekong countries, except China, address issues such as water resource management and climate change.
The MRC countries have been in deadlock since April over Laos’ proposal to build the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam. Under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the countries have to unanimously agree on any project that affects the mainstream Mekong.
Laos has been determined to push ahead with the dam and has eight other dams planned on the Mekong. Cambodia and Vietnam are deeply concerned about the environmental impacts the dams could have and fear that approval of the Xayaburi project would lead to more dams going ahead.
The two countries have previously asked for more studies and a project delay of up to 10 years. Thailand, which has large business interests in the Xayaburi project, has not openly opposed the dam.
Cambodian Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor declined to speak about yesterday’s decision, as he had chaired the MRC meeting, but in a short remark, he said, “It’s a good result. It’s our position at previous discussions that [we need] more studies.”
Environmental campaigners and Mekong experts welcomed the MRC’s decision, but cautioned that all dams planned for the Mekong should be delayed for at least 10 years in order to prevent their far-reaching environmental impacts.
“[T]he Mekong governments responded to the will of the people of the region. We welcome the recognition that not nearly enough is known about the impacts of mainstream dams to be able to make a decision about the Xayaburi Dam,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, said in a news release.
“Given the immense value that the Mekong River provides to the region’s people, it’s inconceivable to think the governments would even consider throwing it all away.”
Chhit Sam Ath, director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, also welcomed the decision, but said, “We want to be informed regularly how long these impact studies will take, because Laos has not yet determined if it will accept a 10-year delay.
“We also expect transparency in these [MRC] meetings, and we want that NGOs and communities are involved.”
Ian Baird, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Mekong fisheries expert, also said that it was regrettable that the countries did not agree to delay the Xayaburi dam by a fixed number of years.
“It would have been much preferable if the Lao government had agreed to at least a 10-year delay in deciding whether to build the Xayaburi dam, but it is at least heartening that the project has been put on hold for a short period of time,” he said.
A 2010 MRC study on the proposed Mekong dams warned that the projects could wipe out the Mekong River’s highly productive fisheries and push millions of fishermen across the region into poverty. It also advised a 10-year delay of any Mekong dam in order to allow for more studies, a conclusion that has been publicly supported by the US, the World Bank and other foreign donors.
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