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Decision-Makers Must Recognize Irreversible Impacts of Dams on Mekong River and People’s Lives

03/04/2017 | 16:50

Bangkok, Thailand: International Rivers believes that recent comments attributed in the media to the CEO of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) at the MRC Stakeholder Forum on the Pak Beng Dam and Council Study raise serious concerns about the role and positioning of the MRC Secretariat and the future of decision-making over hydropower development in the Mekong.

When asked about the impacts of dams on the Mekong River, the leader of the MRC responded, “hydropower on the Great Mekong will not kill the river.” He went on to say that the dams on the Mekong River “will cause certain impacts to the ecosystems throughout the basin.” Such comments contradict scientific studies, including the MRC-commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) on Mekong Mainstream Dams (2010), which found that “mainstream projects are likely to result in serious and irreversible environmental damage, losses in long-term health and productivity of natural systems and losses in biological diversity and ecological integrity.”

Studies have shown that mainstream dams would have significant impacts on agricultural productivity in the Mekong basin and would fundamentally affect the river’s aquatic systems. Proposed hydropower development on the Mekong River and its tributaries would block critical fish migration routes, drastically reducing biodiversity and fish catch in the largest freshwater fishery in the world. The impacts will be compounded with each new dam that is constructed. However proposed projects on the lower Mekong mainstream continue to be evaluated one-by-one ignoring cumulative impacts.

“Comments such as those made to media by the MRC CEO not only downplay the expected impacts from hydropower development in the Mekong, but diminish the importance of the Mekong River for the millions of people that depend on it,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand and Burma Program Director for International Rivers. “The Mekong River is recognized globally as an iconic river due to its rich ecological resources and unique biodiversity. Locally it is essential in supporting the food security and livelihoods of millions of people. The MRC has a responsibility to ensure that the interests of all who depend on the River are represented.”

Rushing forward the PNPCA process for the Pak Beng Dam cannot erase the outstanding problems with decision-making and construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams. The Prior Consultation process for both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams failed to transparently address significant concerns raised by neighboring countries over transboundary impacts and requests for additional studies and extensions of the consultation period. 

“To call the Xayaburi Dam a model for all Mekong mainstream dams is to re-write the project’s controversial history and to ignore its ongoing technical and procedural problems”, said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia Program Director. “Construction of the Xayaburi Dam moved forward in the face of strong opposition from Cambodia and Vietnam and with no resolution to the Prior Consultation process. Project studies failed to evaluate transboundary impacts. As a result, the Xayaburi Dam has been the subject of a lawsuit in Thailand’s Administrative Court, brought forward by villagers from northern Thailand who will be affected by the impacts of the dam. The build first, study later approach propagated by the Xayaburi Dam process is a dangerously irresponsible model for dam-building in the Mekong.”

The MRC Council Study will be completed at the end of this year. Initiated in 2012, at the specific request of the leaders of each MRC member country, the Council Study intends to fill critical knowledge gaps in understanding the impacts of hydropower along with other interventions on the Mekong River. Given the limited studies on the cumulative and basin-wide impacts of dams on the Mekong River mainstream, it is important that the Council Study’s findings inform decision-making over future hydropower construction on the River, this includes the Pak Beng Dam. At a minimum, the MRC must take steps to halt or delay the PNPCA process for the Pak Being Dam in order to allow the Council Study to inform decision-making. Doing so is in the shared interest of all four MRC member countries who requested the study. 

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