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Reporting from Mekong River Commission (MRC) Conference

Updated: May 31, 2018

Author: Dr Thong TRAN

MRC International Conference “Enhancing Joint Efforts and Partnerships towards Achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals in the Mekong River Basin”

2-3 April 2018, Siem Reap, Cambodia

1. General summary

The conference brought together scholars, researchers and individuals from civil society organizations, high-ranking government officials from Mekong countries and research institutions. The conference started by the reflection papers from representatives from the MRC member countries. Critical concerns relevant to the Mekong development, opportunities and challenges were presented with well-recognized feedback from the audience.

The rest of the day 1 and day 2 was devoted to parallel sessions, focusing on themes of optimizing benefits and minimizing negative impacts (Section 1a) and climate change, drought and flood in the Mekong basin (Section 1b). Given the presentation of representatives of MRCS (Mekong River Commission Secretariats) in Section 1a that I attended, the basin-wide impact assessments on the significant importance of water resources and sediments in associated with the alterations of seasonal flow patterns and disturbance of ecosystems, and fish habitats and reproduction were discussed. This section particularly highlighted the collaborative efforts of MRC and its member countries in warranting the impact mitigation of these processes. The conference recognized the economic contribution of hydropower development to riparian countries but simultaneously admitted its environmental impacts facing the ecosystems and rural communities’ livelihoods.

The MRC Council study (completed in December 2017) includes studies that provide a compendium of the current state of knowledge and implications for future studies based on available data. The Council study provides sound scientific reference to guide policy making. It has accomplished major advances in accessing social, economic and environmental conditions in the Mekong Basin. The results reveal both positive benefits and negative impacts of development. Enhancing positive benefits and minimizing negative impacts will require substantial cooperative, collaborative and joint efforts by the member countries, with technical and facilitation support by the MRCS, and in relevant collaboration with partners, including:

a. Optimizing benefits: Governments should put more investment in the channel improvement for water transport to create more economical opportunities and environmental benefits (e.g., the ‘Lancang – Mekong River Navigation’) and improve safety navigation. This requires: (1) development of the joint multi-sector investment program, including list of priority projects, not just strategy (capturing the Senegal and Niger example); (2) development of tools for monitoring both quantity and quality of the Mekong River upstream and downstream and collective agreement on criteria; (3) integration of the needs for sustainable basin-wide hydropower development strategy in the Council study results, seeking for better design and more sustainable hydropower development pathways; (4) exploration of innovative co-financing and co-ownership by the Mekong-Lancang countries.

b. Minimizing costs: Various mitigation measures (e.g., sustainable dam operator, navigation clearing activities …) must be introduced minimize adverse impacts from hydropower dam construction. This requires: (1) proper designs and approaches, and dredging materials for rock blasting; (2) monitoring activity of conservation areas/ecosystem services to be put in the MRC mandate and development plan. Civil society and related local communities should be engaged in the Council study results dissemination plan.

Highlights for Section 1a include:

1. Development plans contribute to the economy of the region but likely trigger a decline in resilience, vulnerability and sustainability.

2. Hydropower is predicted to provide nearly half of the combined sector growth under the 2040 scenario, but also causes greater impacts comparing with other sectors.

3. Hydropower projects reduce wet season flows and increase dry season flows under normal operation

4. Hydropower projects reduce sediments and nutrient transport downstream. Vulnerable regions include: Cambodia floodplains, the Tonle Sap and the Vietnamese Mekong Delta (97% of reduced sediments for the 2040 scenario).

5. The benefits and trade-offs are not evenly distributed throughout the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) and are cross-boundary.

6. The management of trade-offs between hydropower and fisheries is more efficiently achieved by cross-sector benefit sharing than by the compensation of losses between countries. A possible solution to relocate benefits acquired by energy companies at the expense of fishing households (a levy imposed around 9% of annual profits for tributary dams and 19% of annual profits for mainstream dams).

7. Member countries should consider emerging energy technologies that are greener and competitive with hydropower.

8. Sustainable water resources development in the LMB will not be achieved by a singular reliance on unilateral investment decisions of the member countries.

9. The transboundary connectivity, mutual dependencies, shared resources, opportunities of scale and cooperation necessities require a set of supra-national joint development and planning policies for the advancement of integrated beneficial projects.

The MRC Chinese dialogue partner representatives committed to close cooperation with the MRC. There are important opportunities to cooperate between Mekong-Lancang Cooperation and the Mekong River Commission, including integrated basin-wide planning, data and information sharing, joint studies, capacity building and exchange, and coordination of infrastructure projects.

2. Personal reflections

The development of hydropower dams in the Mekong River Basin is not avoidable. The conference emphasized the role of MRC in addressing development issues in the Mekong River Basin. Local community case study reports were minimal (e.g., the presentation on community livelihood impacts in Cambodia caused by the operation of Yali Falls Dam presented by the Executive Director of 3S Rivers Protection Network). Although the environmental, social and economic impacts were raised at the conference, there were limited discussions on seeking for alternative sources for the hydropower-generated energy. The conference emphasizes the needs for further collaboration among the MRC member countries in seeking approaches to ensure the sustainable hydropower development that aligns with sustainable development goals. Among them, optimizing regional benefits and minimizing costs (impacts) are the key priorities.

Along with the implementation of Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), current efforts of the MRC have been devoted to providing the technical guidelines for transboundary environmental impact assessments (TbEIA) among the member countries before the decisions for hydropower dams (both mainstream and tributaries) are approved. This can be seen as one of the most significant steps undertaken by the MRC to address transboundary impacts of hydropower dams as currently witnessed. In practice, TbEIA was made available for the Pak Beng hydropower project, but was prepared by the developer independently without involvement of potentially impacted countries.

The MRC has achieved its full riparian ownership and its future direction with the leadership of the first riparian Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and recruitment of all regular staff from the member countries. These unprecedented steps contribute to sustaining the collaborative spirits among the member countries in addressing shared concerns and fulfil objectives set out in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

The highlighted role of the MRC in the Mekong River Basin at the conference seemingly aims to balance its position against the increasing influence of the newly-emerged Mekong-Lancang Cooperation led by China. However, it can be ironically inferred that while the MRC wishes to strengthen its independent role in the Mekong River Basin, the economic dependency of riparian countries on China supports in recent years makes themselves subordinately entangled in the “new game” of the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Initiative. This would challenge the full cooperation of the MRC member countries in negotiating the upper Mekong-lower Mekong benefits.

3. Relevance to the SSRC project

a. Looking into the potential implementation of TbEIA on tributary dams at research sites

b. In-depth investigation on community-level adverse transboundary impacts by hydropower dams remains essential.

c. Discourse analysis of progression made by the MRC and its role in ensuring sustainable development relevant to issues on hydropower development and transboundary water governance in the Mekong River Basin through the last three MRC conferences (the first in Thailand, the second in Vietnam and the third in Cambodia)

d. The role of MRC in the ‘ambition’ of Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Initiative led by China

e. Analysis of social and political dynamics and inter-linkages at the national and regional level in promoting the national-level solutions of the transboundary impacts caused by hydropower dams.