Civic groups call Mekong Commission a failure

Bangkok Post 13 November 2007

Bangkok - The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has failed to prevent six dam projects from moving ahead on the regional river despite unanswered questions about environmental and social impact of the schemes, environmental and civil society groups said Tuesday. "We urge all donors to review their support to the MRC," said Premrudee Daoroung, director of the Towards Ecological Recovery & Regional Alliances (TERRA), one of 201 groups to sign a petition blasting the four-party Mekong River Commission for failing to protect the river's fisheries and people dependent on the waterway, the longest in South-East Asia.

International donors to the MRC will meet on Thursday in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to assess the commission's recent performance.

The MRC was set up in 1995 as an inter-governmental mechanism to facilitate cooperation between the four lower Mekong River-basin countries - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - in assuring the sustainable development of the river, which courses through all four countries and starts in China.

Between June 2006 to June 2007 the MRC has received 23 million dollars in aid from 17 international donors, including the governments of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and European Commission, among others.

And yet the MRC has failed to sound the alarm on six new hydro-dams planned on the Mekong River since 2006 that will have a dubious impact on the sub-region's environment and fisheries.

"Despite the serious ecological and economic implications of damming the lower Mekong, the Mekong commission has remained notably silent," said the petition.

The six dams - four in Laos, one each in Cambodia and Thailand - will be built by Thai, Malaysian and Chinese companies with most of the electricity sold to Thailand.

Up to 75,000 people could be displaced if the dams are built.

Research conducted by the MRC in 2004 identified dams built for irrigation, hydroelectricity and flood controls as "the overriding threat to the future of the Mekong's fish and fisheries," and yet the same commission has failed to object to the new dam projects.

"We would like the MRC to make known their standpoint on the six dams," said Premrudee. "And the next point will be, why does the MRC keep getting money and technical assistance."

The MRC is currently headquartered in Vientiane, Laos, a communist country that is notorious for its lack of "transparency" in decision making and information sharing.

Among the other country members only Thailand has a strong civil society and environmental movement. Vietnam is a communist state and Cambodia used to be one.

"The MRC system needs to be reformed," said Surichai Wungaeo, director of Chulalongkorn University's Social Research Institute. "It needs to see it's role not only as a facilitating mechanism for building dams but also be concerned for the sustainable development of the region."