A study authorized by an influential intergovernmental panel has called for a 10-year freeze on the construction of hydropower dams along Southeast Asia's Mekong River.
The report, approved by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), came amid a high level of interest to construct up to 12 mainstream hydropower projects in Cambodia and Laos and on the border of Laos and Thailand.
The river, the world's 12th-longest and Asia's 7th-longest, runs through these three countries and China, Burma, and Vietnam.
The Mekong region is home to dozens of rare bird and marine species and already faces threats from pollution, climate change, and the effects of earlier dams that were built in China.
Consultants who conducted the study on proposals to build dams on the Mekong warned that "due to the uncertainties regarding scale and irreversibility of risks in such a complex river system," any decisions on their construction "should be deferred for a period of up to 10 years," the MRC said.
They called for reviews to be made every three years "to ensure that the necessary conditions to strengthen understanding of the natural systems as well as management and regulatory processes are conducted effectively."
Manage shared water resources
The MRC was set up following an agreement by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in 1995 to jointly manage their shared water resources and development of the economic potential of the river.
The study, known as the strategic environmental assessment, on the dam projects "demonstrates the value of cooperation amongst MRC member countries on what are highly sensitive issues,” said Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat in Vientiane.
The assessment results will be used in discussions for hydropower projects "before a decision is made whether or not to go ahead and, if so, under what circumstances."
Laos has proposed the first mega-dam on the mainstream of the lower Mekong, which is also shared by Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Many environmental groups and experts opposed the project, saying it would contribute to the damage of the Mekong river network, home to dozens of rare bird and marine species.
They already face threats from pollution, climate change, and the effects of dams that were built earlier in China and have caused water levels to drop sharply on the upper Mekong.
The MRC is merely an advisory body and has no enforcement powers or independent legal authority to coordinate, plan, or oversee projects. Still, environmentalists say the assessment results were significant.
Lao move on dam
Late last month, the Lao government submitted plans to the MRC for the 1,260-megawatt Sayaboury hydropower dam project on the Mekong River, confirming its intention to go ahead with the project.
The plans were conveyed even before the MRC completed the strategic environment assessment and despite the fact that the assessment document was not made available to the public, said Carl Middleton of Thailand's Chulalongkorn University.
"For several years now there has been lots of concerns about the plans for dams on the Mekong River mainstream part, especially their impact on fisheries, and it is very worrying that the project has got to this state of decision making," he said.
"Because the Mekong river ecosystem is a complete system, we should be looking at what impact it would have throughout the basin—It will have a trans-boundary impact."
The goal of truly cooperative, equitable, and sustainable use of the Mekong "is largely moot as long as China, along with Burma, has declined to join the MRC," lamented Richard Cronin, director of the Washington based Stimson center's Southeast Asia program.
"Beijing refuses to share either significant information about its dams or the data that is used in or derived from its own environmental and hydrological studies," he said.
Contributions by Oratai Singhananth and Max Avary of RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.