The agreement by Mekong River Commission (MRC) countries to conduct more studies before they decide on Laos’ proposal for the first Lower Mekong dam received further support on Friday, with an influential US senator and an environmental group welcoming it as an important step in preventing harm to the river’s crucially important ecosystem.
Questions remains however: Will the delay lessen Laos’ resolve to push ahead with mainstream Mekong dams? And will a delay to this mainstream Mekong dam matter when so many other projects are going ahead on its tributaries and the Upper Mekong in China?
Those projects are also expected to seriously affect the river’s fisheries, as well as agriculture in the region.
On Thursday evening, after extensive negotiations, the ministers of the four MRC countries—Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand—agreed to carry out more environmental impact studies with the help of Japan before they would consider approving Laos’ 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam. Construction work on the Xayaburi is suspended during the studies, while no fixed timeline has been set for the research to conclude.
Senator Jim Webb, a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the MRC countries’ agreement was “an important step toward responsible policy that will protect the economic and environmental conditions of more than 60 million people” living along the Lower Mekong.
Sen. Webb also said that non-MRC member countries on the Mekong, China and Burma, should improve their cooperation with the MRC.
Last week, the US Senate committee adopted a resolution calling on the MRC to delay the construction of Mekong dams for up 10 years in order to avoid the project’s far-reaching environmental impacts.
Environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also supported the MRC’s agreement, saying it was “a positive step towards sound stewardship of one of the region’s most valued and important resources.”
“The countries must now use this delay to properly and fully assess the impacts of the dam project,” WWF sustainable hydropower specialist Jian-hua Meng said in a statement.
Such assessments should address “serious gaps in data and failures to fully account for the impacts of the dam, particularly concerning fisheries and sediment flows,” he said.
Eric Baran, a senior scientist at the World Fish Center, said his group also welcomed the MRC agreement, adding that the planned studies should focus on regional and cumulative environmental impacts, and identify the least environmentally damaging projects that the river could sustain.
Mr. Baran said research should also address the large-scale impact of sediment retention by dams and the development of fish passes in dams that can handle the Mekong’s massive volume of migrating fish.
Laos plans to build nine Mekong dams under its national development strategy, while Thailand—which would fund the Xayaburi project and buy its electricity—has not objected to its construction.
Although the MRC agreement in Siem Reap to conduct more research has received praise, downstream countries Cambodia and Vietnam—the strongest opponents of the project—were unable to get Laos to delay the Xayaburi project for an extended period of time. Vietnam had previously requested that Laos install a 10-year moratorium on any Mekong dams.
MRC countries have no power to veto any Mekong project under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, but are required to find unanimous agreement, making it likely that the MRC process will deadlock again after the agreed-upon research is completed. The MRC earlier failed to reach an agreement on the Xayaburi project during a meeting in April.
Philip Hirsch, director of the Australian Mekong Resource Center at the University of Sydney, said it was difficult to predict if the new agreement could lead to changes in the MRC countries’ positions on the Xayaburi dam, but he added that the outcome of the planned MRC studies could affect Laos’ plans.
“It is unlikely that Laos will wish to cancel the project, but if the studies find that there are significant risks of transboundary impacts…then one possibility is that no further action will be taken to resurrect it,” he said.
And while MRC members are required to find consensus on mainstream Mekong dams, there are no such agreements in place to address regional concerns over the 60 dams planned on Lower Mekong tributaries by 2030, or on the Upper Mekong, where China is building a massive cascade of eight hydropower dams.
The cumulative impacts of these lower and upper Mekong projects, along with the effects of climate change, could decimate fish stocks in Cambodia and the wider Mekong basin, environmentalists say.
A 2010 MRC study predicted that these developments will result in a loss of at least 270,000 tons of fish out of the Mekong basin’s 2 million tons of annual fish catch.
“Rapid hydropower development on the Mekong River’s tributaries is one of the greatest factors currently stressing the basin’s water resources and ecosystems,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers.
“As river flows are becoming increasingly unpredictable, large dams are not the right response to climate change. The region should be protecting its rivers.