Laos Close to Officially Submitting Request for Mekong River Dam, Experts Say

The Laos government is expected to officially inform the Mekong River Commission within the next six months of its plans to build either one of two dams-the Don Sahong dam, located less than 1 kilometer upstream on from the Lao-Cambodian border, or the Xayabouly dam in Northern Laos, MRC said yesterday.

MRC CEO Jeremy Bird added, however, that regardless of which dam Laos chooses, it would be at least two years before the commission would decide whether or not to approve plans submitted for the construction.

Speaking on the sidelines of a MRC workshop in Phnom Penh, Mr Bird said the 360 Megawatt Don Sahong dam and the 1,260 Megawatt Xayabouly dam were in the most advanced stage of planning of all 11 proposed Mekong River mainstream dams, which could generate a total of 14,000 Mw when completed.

“[W]e are expecting in the next six months that on one of the projects [the MRC] will be formally notified,” he said, “At this stage we are not sure which project that will be.”

Under a 1995 agreement, any of the four MRC’s members, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, first has to seek formal approval from other members before it can go ahead with hydropower development on the Mekong River. This process would start with the official notification of the MRC and the sharing of project documents such as an environmental impact assessment.

In recent months, international researchers and civil society groups, including Cambodia’s NGO Forum and the group Rivers International, have warned the Don Sahong dam could block fish migration and reduce water quality, possibly leading to a loss of Mekong fisheries, particularly in Cambodia, and “negatively impact the nutritional status of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people” dependent on the Mekong.

Mr Bird said it would take at least several years before any decision on the construction of a dam on the Mekong River would be taken, due to the comprehensive impact study requirements and subsequent negotiations between riparian countries over a possible project approval.

“[T]here’s a very long process it has to go through. Some of the [project] promoters are looking to start implementation in the next few years, but the national and regional process [requirements] have to be followed first,” he said. “There’s some very great questions to be answered…. The scale and complexity of these projects is so large, it requires a very intense level of investigation,” Mr Bird added.

Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Committee, said he knew project studies for the Don Sahong dam were due soon, but added that the Cambodian government had been able to request project details as the MRC had not been notified.

“Right now we don’t have any information about the feasibility study and EIA reports. It’s too early for discussion, it’s too difficult to call them for negotiations,” Mr Dun said.

At the MRC workshop in Phnom Penh yesterday, MRC delegations, experts and civil society groups discussed the development of a so-called Strategic Environmental Assessment-a project to determine the combined impact of all 11 dams and to set benchmarks on how to study the dams impacts on issues such as environment, social systems, fisheries and hydrology.

Mr Bird said the SEA project would help determine ways to limit the dams potential impacts, adding, “This is the first time anybody has looked at the regional consequences of all the mainstream dams.”

Carl Middleton, Mekong Program Manager of the Rivers International, said however, that the SEA mechanism only served to resolve technical issues dealing with hydropower development on the Mekong River, and did not take into consideration alternative scenario’s for the Mekong River’s future.

“This is looking quite narrowly at strategic [planning issues], actually there’s a bigger question here: What is the vision for the future of the Mekong Basin?”

“That question doesn’t necessarily include dams at all…that’s certainly not a question that can be answered by the people here. That’s a public question,” Mr Middleton said, adding, “The people present here are a very, very small subset of those that have an interest in any decision around mainstream dams.”


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