As bitter protests continue over ongoing Mekong River dam projects, Sweden has pledged $5.3 million to a controversial multinational body monitoring development in the basin.
The funding—to be disbursed over the next four years—will promote sustainable hydropower in the Mekong River basin, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said in a press release.
But Sweden’s support comes with expectations, said Mari Albihn of the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok, among them that the MRC will dramatically streamline its operations and that the strife that has surrounded previous hydropower projects, such as the Don Sahong dam on the Cambodia-Laos border, will not be repeated.
“We’re supporting dialogue between the countries involved,” she said of the funds. “From what I can see, there’s a big change taking place.”
The MRC, the body responsible for ensuring cooperation between Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand regarding sustainable use of the Mekong River, has been harshly criticized in recent years as hydropower projects have gone forward despite inconclusive consultations with those affected, including thousands of villagers living and fishing below dam sites.
Sweden’s money comes just weeks after Laos announced its intent to construct another major dam on the Mekong at Pak Beng, in the country’s north.
Ms. Albihn acknowledged the controversy that surrounded the MRC’s role in two previous dams—Don Sahong and Xayaburi—and said that “our expectation” was that consultation over Pak Beng would be conducted more successfully.
Part of the dispute regarding the MRC’s work stems from a debate over its mandate. Environmental NGOs say that the body is responsible for ensuring compliance with a 1995 sustainable development agreement, which established the commission, while members of the MRC secretariat argue that their role is largely to provide technical information to its members.
A statement from Save the Mekong Coalition criticized a lack of transparency around the Xayaburi and Don Sahong consultations and environmental impact assessments (EIAs). Others used stronger language.
“They didn’t have a real consultation,” said Meanith Mean of the Cambodia-based 3S Rivers Protection Network, speaking of the MRC’s role in the Don Sahong dam project. “And the EIA was not done for the people who lived below the dam.”
Contacted on Monday, Anoulak Kittikhoun, the MRC’s chief strategy officer, listed a number of studies the MRC was currently conducting on the potential impacts of damming the river and its tributaries.
When asked if he thought these studies would affect government decision-making, he said: “In both studies we have engaged the private sector and the Lao government.”
Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’ vice minister of mines and energy, said he thought the MRC’s work had had some policy impact.
“The Xayaburi project—we changed a lot of the original designs. And it cost Laos a lot of money,” he said.
Asked whether Laos would ever cancel a development project that was shown to be potentially devastating to the livelihoods of those downstream, Mr. Viravong demurred.
“If [the MRC’s] recommendations are not reasonable or practical,” he said, “we are bound by our agreements and development plans.”