MRC talks over Laos Mekong dam project reach a dead end

Don Sahong hydropower dam could threaten the livelihoods of thousands; dispute will now be submitted to the Mekong River Commission Council

No agreement was reached during talks this week over a dispute regarding the Don Sahong hydropower dam project in Laos. Following the failure to find a solution during the negotiations, which were conducted by the four members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the issue will now be brought to the MRC Council, the Commission’s highest governing body.

The talks were called for by Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Laos’ neigbouring countries which share the lower Mekong. They argued that Laos had failed to comply with the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which mandates prior notification and consultation of riparian states for certain projects.

All three neighbouring countries have asserted that Laos is obliged under the Mekong Agreement, and its associated procedures, to submit to prior consultation. Laos maintains that the dam is not strictly located on the mainstream of the river.

A statement by the MRC Joint Committee, which comprises representatives of the four member states, said that “[Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam] raised particular concerns on the project’s potential impacts on fish migration routes as the Hou Sahong has been the major migration channel for fish to migrate in the dry season”.

Because no consensus was reached during this week’s discussions, the matter will now be presented to the MRC Council, which is comprised of the water and environment ministers of the member countries. The Council will determine whether or not it considers the dam to be located on the Mekong’s mainstream.

However, the Council, whose function is to “provide guidance” and to “resolve issues and disputes referred to it”, does not have the power to legally oblige Laos to abide by its decision and halt construction on the dam. A final course of action available to member states is international arbitration, the outcome of which would be legally binding.

The MRC, set up in 1995 pursuant to the Mekong Agreement, is an inter-governmental governing body overseeing the regional cooperation over the use and development of the Lower Mekong River Basin.

The Don Sahong dam is the second such dam being built by Laos on the Mekong river. The Xayaburi dam, currently under construction in Northern Laos, is at the root of major concerns among environmentalists and world leaders that it could create irreversible and disastrous damage to the ecosystem, biodiversity and populations along the Mekong in downstream as well as upstream countries.

A threat to thousands

Events accelerated and relations grew tenser following Laos’ decision in September 2013 to go ahead with the construction of the Don Sahong dam, with riparian states raising concerns over the project and objecting to the go-ahead given by the Laotian government to Mega First Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian company in charge of the project.

After the announcement by the Laos Ministry of Energy and Mines that work on the dam would start by the beginning of the year, Cambodia issued a formal complaint to the MRC, which protested that Laos is moving ahead with the dam without first consulting its neighbors. In addition, At least 19 NGOs in the region have written to the prime ministers of the four lower Mekong countries—Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam— calling on them to suspend the project until further studies are conducted.

Environmental groups have been critical of the project. International Rivers, a California-based NGO which monitors dam activity around the world, claims that the Don Sahong dam would “threaten to block the only channel of the Mekong that currently allows for year-round fish migrations on a large scale, while also wiping out one of the last pools of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins”, not only upending local ecosystems, but threatening the lifeline of thousands who depend on the fish.

“The dam will create inevitably devastating impacts on riverine communities and dwellers whose livelihoods and food security depend on the Mekong River’s resources such as fisheries”, International Rivers said.

The Don Sahong Dam is a hydroelectric dam. It will generate 260 MW of electricity, most of which will be exported to Thailand and Cambodia, two fast-growing economies in desperate need for energy.

The dam, conservationists say, could potentially cause environmental catastrophes and destroy the livelihoods of fishermen along the river. Laos argues that measures will be put in place to minimize any impact on the ecosystem.


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