Last month, the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) released an extensive report to help facilitate the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) preparation of a Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) of development proposals for mainstream dams in the Lower Mekong Basin.

According to the report, the proposed development is the most important strategic decision ever made by Lower Mekong Basin countries on the use of their shared resources. The ‘big strategic issues’ listed in the report are:

  • Power security and generation including revenue, trade and foreign investment;
  • Economic development and poverty alleviation;
  • Ecosystems integrity and diversity – aquatic, terrestrial, hydrological dynamics and sediment/nutrient transport;
  • Fisheries and food security (including agriculture), and
  • Social systems – livelihoods and the living cultures of affected communities.

The report states that while there is potential for electricity production from proposed mainstream developments, it is clear that many of the associated risks cannot currently be mitigated, as they would represent ‘a permanent and irreversible loss of environmental, social and economic assets’. Due to these significant risks and the many uncertainties and gaps in knowledge which remain, as well as the shared views of most stakeholders involved in the SEA process on the need for further consultation and study, ICEM recommended a 10 year moratorium on the development of mainstream Mekong dams, with a review every three years.

 The report does not represent the MRC’s official position. The final version of the Basin Development Plan is still pending. The MRC’s current draft Basin Development Plan of July 2010 includes the construction of six mainstream dams on the Mekong above the Lao capital of Vientiane. Moreover, under the Mekong River Agreement of 1995, the decision on development of the Mekong mainstream ultimately rests with the governments of the countries through which the river flows. The recommendation for a moratorium is contrary to the stated positions of the Lao and Cambodian governments, which both want to dam the mainstream of the Mekong in order to sell hydroelectric power to Thailand and Vietnam. The Lao Government has recently notified the MRC, in accordance with the Mekong River Agreement, of its intention to approve construction of a dam at Xayaburi.

The legal dimension of the proposed developments is important. The report notes: ‘There are many and substantial gaps in institutional and procedural arrangements for ensuring the effective management of the construction and operation of the projects and similar gaps in the national capacities to share benefits equitably.  Critical national capacities in terms of personnel and skills continue to grow but are not yet fully in place to oversee, control, monitor and enforce safeguards and operational rules.’

 The report’s conclusions are consistent with the recommendations of the Mekong Legal Network (MLN).  Lawyers participating in MLN are developing a regional strategy to: (1) ensure current transboundary and national laws and procedures are followed, and (2) support all stakeholders improve their legal capacity and assist in the overall improvement of regional and national laws and procedures relating to hydropower development to international best practice. If the laws and procedures are improved to this standard and implemented properly, it is unlikely that a decision to proceed with mainstream Mekong dams would be made.