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Mekong leaders must face up to Laos' rogue dam-building

The leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam meet tomorrow in Ho Chi Minh City for the 2nd Summit of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The summit comes at a critical moment when regional cooperation and the Mekong River are on the brink of collapse.

Laos is unilaterally moving forward with the construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream, while ignoring its responsibilities to the 1995 Mekong Agreement and repeated calls from neighbouring countries for further study and consultation. Regional leaders must use this summit to demand the immediate halt to construction on these projects and the cancellation of further plans to build dams on the Mekong mainstream.

"To date, the MRC has failed to address the rising danger posed by the rogue Lao regime. Meanwhile Laos has become emboldened by the MRC's inertia, steamrolling its neighbours in order to further its own unilateral agenda on the Mekong," said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Programme director for International Rivers. "It's critical that the dangers of mainstream dam building take centre stage at the 2nd Mekong Summit. Mekong leaders must use this opportunity to condemn the current state of regional cooperation and finds new ways to approach decisionmaking related to dams on the Mekong River."

The MRC's First Mekong Summit in 2010 produced the Hua Hin Declaration, which reaffirmed political commitments towards the protection of the river and the implementation of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. However since then, transboundary governance has faced political gridlock and procedural dispute between MRC member countries over whether to build the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. During regional deliberations, Laos has refused to cooperate in good faith, rejecting repeated requests by Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to carry out transboundary impact assessments of the dams and refusing to allow discussions by the MRC's Council to progress.

"It's been four years since the MRC's Hua Hin Declaration and rather than taking steps forward in the sustainable management of the Mekong River, we have taken a leap backwards, leaving the region at even greater risk," said Painporn Deetes, Thailand Campaigns Coordinator for International Rivers. "The MRC requires significant reform if there is to be hope for the Mekong River. We call on regional leaders to demand that construction on the mainstream dams stop immediately, address the ambiguities of the Agreement, and put in place a mechanism to ensure enforcement, before its is too late for the Mekong.

Urgent warnings from scientists have demonstrated the dangers posed by the construction of dams on the Mekong mainstream, including the severe threats to the region's fisheries and the food security of millions who depend on the Mekong. In 2010, a MRC commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment recommended that decisions on building the mainstream dams be deferred for 10 years due to the significant environmental, economic and social risks and the need for further study.

The proposed dams have also faced massive international public opposition over the years. Since 2009, tens of thousands of people have submitted petitions and letter to the region's prime ministers and the MRC calling for the Mekong River to remain freeflowing. Last weekend, hundreds of Cambodians participated in boat flotillas calling for the cancellation of the Don Sahong Dam. On Monday, 39 NGOs issued a declaration demanding a stop to the Xayaburi Dam and today, the Save the Mekong coalition will hold a panel discussion in Ho Chi Minh on "The Journey from Hua Hin to Ho Chi Minh City and the Future of the Mekong River", highlighting the urgent need for regional leaders to take action for the future of the Mekong. There will also be a press conference today in Bangkok at the Thai Journalists Association focusing on the Mekong dams.

"The 1995 Mekong Agreement recognises the immense value of the Mekong River Basin to all riparian countries," said Trandem. "Under the Principal of Cooperation, parties agree, 'to protect the environment, natural recourses, aquatic life…and ecological balance of the Mekong River Basin'. It is critical that Mekong leaders uphold the spirit of the 1995 Mekong Agreement and issue a declaration condemning dams on the Mekong mainstream. If the Summit becomes nothing more than a public relations exercise at the expense of the millions of people in the Mekong region who depend on the river, the international community must work with leaders to find a new platform for regional cooperation and improved decision-making on the mainstream dams."


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