Mekong River Commission Secretariat

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A Responsible Approach to Dam Building

Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer, Mekong River Commission Secretariat

The great changes in oil and gas prices over the last year and the growing evidence of climate change on the planet have focused global attention on the need for sustainable sources of clean energy.

In Southeast Asia there is a potential source of enormous energy– the 4,800 kilometre-long Mekong River, which runs through Yunnan Province of China, Myanmar, and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) member states of Thailand, the Lao PDR, Cambodia and Viet Nam. In the mid-twentieth century the Mekong and its tributaries were identified as possible sources for hydropower generation. To date, only around 5% of that potential has been realised.

But how does one balance this enormous electricity potential with the need to protect all the other benefits of the river? The Mekong is a natural resource that has nurtured great civilisations over human history. It is home to 1,300 types of fish, stocking a sustainable fishing industry worth at least US$2 billion per year. Its fish and the irrigation water supplied by the river’s annual flood pulse provide food for over 60 million people each year.

This is the question some 200 delegates will be discussing in Vientiane this week as the MRC asks stakeholders throughout its member countries to comment on the MRC’s role in regional hydropower development. It is widely acknowledged that the issues surrounding dams and hydropower are sensitive, but that is even more reason why they should be debated in an open and objective forum.

Eight years ago, the World Commission on Dams proposed a rights and risks approach to dam planning, taking into account the rights of stakeholders and aiming to address and minimise the risks that each group is asked to face. We should add to this the element of responsibility – the responsibility the countries and the MRC have to promote sustainable economic growth and reduce poverty. The governments and people of the Mekong region can use these considerations to make decisions at this important time, when about ten dams are being planned for the mainstream of the lower Mekong.

How can they do this? At an inter-governmental level, there needs to be a regional approach to the assessment of each proposed hydropower project. This involves developing a clear understanding of how building a dam in one country could affect nations and people who share the river. The issue here is who benefits, and who pays the costs associated with the impacts of each project?

At the MRC, we have been developing a model for regional cooperation, based on what is appropriate for the Mekong region as a whole. Integrated into this is a basin-wide approach to decision-making, where the broad development needs of the Mekong countries are considered whenever a major decision on hydropower is made – taking into account fisheries, irrigation, environmental management, navigation of the river, flood management, and tourism.

Answers are needed on the effects of each decision. What impact will a dam have on the migrations of the fish that are so important to rural people? What are the multiple benefits of building a dam in one of the Mekong tributaries? Can flood management be handled more effectively through greater control over river flow? All decisions and questions can be addressed within an integrated context.

Knowledge at the regional and basin level is of vital importance. Here, the MRC has strong expertise, a comprehensive knowledge base, and powerful mathematical models and planning tools that can be used to assess development scenarios. Giving this information to decision makers is a priority.

With more investment in hydropower now coming from the private sector instead of international organisations, the planning stages for dams are shorter. Therefore early identification of planning criteria is required to ensure that social and environmental concerns are addressed, and that risks and responsibilities are identified. This is all in accord with the 1995 Mekong Agreement signed by the four MRC member states. The MRC is in an ideal position to promote dialogue among the various partners in the development and investment process for hydropower. Each individual project proposal can then be viewed within a more coordinated basin-wide context.

It is our responsibility to use this regional perspective on the Mekong to ensure that decisions lead to an outcome that reflects everyone’s interests, and the MRC vision for the future - an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong Basin.


For more information please contact:

Aiden Glendinning, Acting Communications Officer.
MRC Secretariat,
Tel: 856 21 263 263 Ext 4703
Fax: 856 21 263 264
Mobile: (856) 20 559 9139




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