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Cutting up the Mekong

Laos has relented and agreed to consult its downstream neighbours over a proposed dam project, but it is under no obligation to act on their concerns

Laos should be applauded for the decision to consult its neighbours in the Mekong River basin over the controversial Don Sahong Dam project.

Laos Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphone Viravong said at a meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) last week in Bangkok that Laos had decided to consult all stakeholders following concerns over the project.

Last September Laos informed the commission that it would build the Don Sahong hydropower project in Khong district in Champasak province to generate 260MW of electricity for domestic consumption. Vientiane gave the go-ahead for a Malaysian developer to conduct a feasibility study and invest in the project.

The proposed location is on the five-kilometre-long Hou Sahong, a channel of the Mekong approximately two kilometres upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border. The dam will span 100 metres and reach 30 metres in height.

However, Cambodia and Vietnam downstream have raised serious concerns about the dam's potential social and environmental impacts. It would likely block a channel used by migrating fish and also limit water flow. The Mekong River provides the lifeblood for agriculture and fisheries in those countries.

But, since the dam would be built within its own territory, Laos is not obliged to consult any of its neighbours over the project. There is neither a regional agreement nor any other international legal obligation for Laos to ask permission from other countries to construct the dam.

As a member of the MRC, Laos is required simply to "notify" the commission and its members - namely Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam - of its proposal. The 1995 agreement that forged the four-country MRC does not require Laos to do any more.

The notification process is one of three prerequisites for the development of water-use projects in the Lower Mekong Basin. Notification is required for year-round intra-basin projects and inter-basin diversion projects on the Mekong's tributaries, and for wet-season water use on the mainstream. Information from this process helps MRC member countries plan other water-use projects.

The other two processes are prior consultation and agreement, but these only apply to proposed projects on the mainstream in the dry season, diversion of mainstream water to other basins during the wet season and diversion of surplus water to other basins in the dry season.

Lao minister Viraphone explained that Vientiane had voluntarily decided to allow region-wide consultation on the Don Sahong project to maintain a spirit of cooperation. By doing so, the Laos government has demonstrated its commitment to developing the dam in a responsible and sustainable manner, he said.

The MRC secretariat will now review studies of the project and allow member countries to voice any concerns that arise. Laos has pledged to take all concerns into account and adjust or even redesign the project accordingly, to minimise negative impact.

However, the story doesn't end there. The process of prior consultation has been given a meagre six-month timeframe, after which Laos still has full authority to do as it pleases with the Don Sahong project - including ignoring the concerns and advice of its neighbours. Thus, its fellow MRC members and civic activists have a strong obligation to continue closely monitoring the project.

The Mekong is the lifeblood of this region. If we allow any individual country to endanger its flow, we are inviting disaster downstream.


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