Mekong River Commission ministerial; environmentalists disappointed

Mekong River (Photo credit: International Rivers via Flickr)

Environmental activists are disappointed that leaders from Vietnam and Cambodia failed to call for an immediate halt to construction of two hydro-power dams on the lower Mekong River during the latest ministerial meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Hanoi. The dams are the first two of 11 proposed along the lower Mekong River and are located in Laos. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok that scientists and environmentalists are concerned about the dam’s impact on migratory fish and water-flow affecting millions of people living along the river.


The Lower Mekong River runs from northern Laos down through Thailand and Cambodia to the delta region of Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea. About 60 million people live in the river’s basin. Leaders from countries through which the lower Mekong River flows met last weekend in Hanoi at a ministerial of the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that conducts research and planning for the watershed.

At the meeting’s close, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said cooperation was key to ensure sustained development along the Mekong, noting “severe negative impacts” from demographic and environmental changes. Mr. Dung pointed to increasing pressure on the river’s waters and related resources along the entire Mekong basin as a result of population growth, water demand and climate change.

Vietnam’s delta region is the country’s main rice producing area, supporting a population of 20 million people. The delta is already experiencing rising salt water intrusion due to lower fresh water flow, which has reduced by 10 per cent during the past 30 years. But environmentalists had called on the commission to address concerns about two dams being planned and built in Laos. Both dams, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong are mainstream dams on the lower Mekong. The U.S.-based non-government group, International Rivers says work on the projects should have been halted immediately.

“This is disappointing. No words on the status of construction on at least two dams that are being built on the mainstream river – the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dam – there is no actions in it,” said Pianporn Deetes, an activist for International Rivers, who had hoped that leaders would condemn the current rush to build the dams. “But the Mekong River needs immediate action from the decision and action from all leaders. It’s very important for member countries to recognize that this is really an international river – an international issue.”

The controversial 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi dam, a focus of debate at a ministerial meeting in 2012, is now 30 per cent complete. Laos has pressed ahead with the project despite earlier concerns raised by Vietnam and Cambodia and calls for a 10 year moratorium to study the likely impact of the dams. Laos also plans to build the 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam, near the border with Cambodia. Environmentalists and scientists say the dam will interfere with the migration of dozens of fish species and the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphin.

“The key concern with the Don Sahong with its the main dry season fish migratory route moving up and downstream over the falls,” says Philip Hersch of the Sydney University’s Mekong Research Center. “Even during other parts of the year while there are other channels the fish can navigate rather the Hor Sahong channel remain the main path through which fish migrate. So we’re talking about a relatively small proportion of the water that would be held back and blocked through Hor Sahong but a very large proportion of the fish migration.”

A study conducted by the Mekong River Commission itself, warned the dams could reduce fish stocks by 300,000 tonnes a year, and would be especially hard felt by millions of people in Cambodia.
The Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams are but the first two of what under current development plans would be a total of 11 dams in Laos and Cambodia along 1,488  miles of the Lower Mekong. But the Commission, set up in 1995, largely has no enforcement powers and relies on individual countries to adhere to pledges made at key meetings.

According to Robert Mather, regional representative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the intergovernmental body’s methods of settling issues are inadequate. “What we saw from the Xayaburi – which was the first time that this process was put into play by the MRC was that it was quite confusing.” Mather continued, “How do we improve it and make the process better the second time around? But we really don’t see a very good process at the moment and I think that’s quite worrisome.”

Senglong Youk from the Cambodia based Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) thinks the commission should be reformed to include civil society groups as stakeholders. “At the current position what we can say as a civil society is that the MRC is like a Paper Tiger, it’s like a postman, it has no power at all. No authority at all to put the pressure on any country specifically like Laos PDR that make the decisions to build the dams on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong.”

Environmentalists are now preparing a campaign to delay the Don Sahong project, which still requires ratification by the Laos National Assembly, expected to take place in December.

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