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The Mekong River Commission Council is holding its annual meeting this week in the picturesque riverside town of Luang Prabang, Laos.

Conspicuously absent from the agenda of the inter-governmental body tasked with collectively managing the great Southeast Asian waterway is any explicit mention of the Xayaburi dam, the US$3.5 billion mega-dam in northern Laos. The Laos government’s decision to forge ahead with this dam in November defied the commission’s recommendations.

None of the commission’s four member states are satisfied with the Xayaburi process: not Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, whose concerns about ecological and economic impacts have not been settled, nor Laos, whose officials have criticized the elaborate consultation process as a time-consuming intrusion upon national sovereignty.

The countries funding the MRC are equally unamused, releasing a statement Thursday expressing concerns about Xayaburi’s “social impacts and environmental risks.”

With the commission’s credibility bruised and more dam plans on the horizon, what does the future look like for the Mekong River Commission?

“Xayaburi was significant because it was the first big test for a large project with transboundary impacts,” said Kirk Herbertson, Southeast Asia policy coordinator for the NGO International Rivers. “From our point of view, it failed its first test.”

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam joined the MRC in 1995 to share information and collectively manage development along the lower Mekong.

It was no small task. The Mekong crosses six countries and is the world’s largest inland fishery, feeding some 60 million people along its 4,350 kilometres.

Though unable to influence development on the upper Mekong – China and Myanmar joined the MRC in 1996 only as “dialogue partners” who aren’t bound by its conventions – the commission was hailed as a model of transboundary resource management in the lower Mekong basin.

Damming up the Mekong 

For roughly the first decade of its existence, the organisation served largely to collect and share ecological data, particularly concerning fisheries. In 2006, however, hydropower companies from China, Russia and other nations – with the blessing of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – began studying a series of 11 proposed dams along the mainstream lower Mekong, with the majority in Laos.

These moves toward large-scale hydropower raised concerns among donors, NGOs and scientists about the commission’s ability to effectively address the massive human and environmental impacts these projects would entail.

A 2007 report from the University of Sydney and Oxfam Australia found that though the commission had access to vast stores of knowledge regarding the river and the populations dependent on it, it did not seem to be mobilizing them to greatest effect.

“With hydropower development and mainstream dams in particular identified as ‘the most important issue facing the MRC’, its ability to demonstrate that its knowledge can have an impact on decisions on this matter is pivotal in determining the future relevance of the organisation,” the report said.

It went on to quote the MRC’s own strategic plan: “Unless the MRC can demonstrate tangible influence on this issue, serious questions will continue to be asked about its relevance, impact and effectiveness.”

The Xayaburi dam – a 1,260 megawatt dam in northern Laos – became the first test of the commission’s ability to reach a consensus agreement on a mainstream dam project.

In October 2010, after several years of preliminary studies, Laos formally entered Xayaburi plans into the Prior Consultation Process and Agreement, the commission’s formal process for evaluating mainstream project proposals.

One year after the process began, the MRC released an environmental assessment that found the dams’ disruptions to fish and sediment could cost fisheries and farms up to US$500 million per year.

The study recommended a ten-year moratorium on dam building in the lower Mekong so that further studies could be done. In December 2011, the MRC asked Laos to postpone Xayaburi construction – a request Laos ignored.

International Rivers has pointed out several ways in which Laos’s actions on Xayaburi appear to violate the terms of the MRC’s founding agreement. Though the agreement requires a country that builds a damaging project to pay compensation to affected neighbours, monitoring the effects of that damage will be the downstream countries’ jobs.

No one seems satisfied with the current arrangement. At a panel in Vientiane in October, Laos’s Ministry of Energy and Mines vice-minister Viraphonh Vivavong said that he felt the consultation process did not strike a “balance between development and conservation. I did not see respect for countries’ rights.”

Institutional paralysis

The absence of consensus on the Xayaburi issue highlights the MRC’s main constraints: though it provides a framework for countries to discuss projects that will affect the whole basin, it has no decision-making authority. Final say on individual dams rests with the host country, whose priorities may not align with the commission’s.

“They come back to again two different principles – country sovereignty, and the international river. I don’t know what principle they want to be on,” said Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, a Bangkok-based NGO.

It’s unclear how the MRC should assert itself in balancing the economic and energy needs of individual nations with the sustainable management of the region as a whole.

“Many, many organisations complain to me that MRC is a paper tiger,” said Pakawan Chufamanee, director of the Mekong Management Bureau in Thailand’s Department of Water Resources, at the same event. “I disagree. We’ve never been a tiger. We’re just the paper.”

While the MRC struggles to redefine its purpose, development on the Mekong barrels ahead.  International Rivers has documented early-stage construction or exploration at Pak Beng and Don Sahong in Laos – sites of two other proposed dams.



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