Mekong Commission fends off credibility charges

IPS 11 May 2008

By Andrew Nette 

PHNOM PENH – The head of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has defended the regional body against charges that it faces a crisis of credibility arising from inability to guide hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream.

In an interview with IPS, Jeremy Bird, who took over as chief executive officer of the Vientiane-based organisation in late March, agreed that among the challenges facing the MRC, "obviously a key one relates to mainstream dams and some of the perceptions of the different players about these".

His comments come as civil society groups intensify their criticism over the MRC’s handling of plans for mainstream dams on the Mekong. Of the eight dams planned for the lower Mekong, five are in Laos, two in Thailand and one in Cambodia.

"Dams on the mainstream (Mekong) are not new and they are one of the reasons that the MRC was established in 1995," Bird said. "The question is, what is the role of the MRC in this debate? We are not set up as a development finance organisation. We have a role to support development in the basin. We do not have an enforcement role, we have a facilitation role."

Bird, a civil engineer specialising in irrigation management, has worked with the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) in the Mekong region. He has been a senior member of the World Commission on Dams secretariat.

In a Mar. 27 letter, 51 citizens’ groups and individuals from six Mekong countries challenged Bird over what they called a looming "crisis of legitimacy and relevancy" for the commission, whose members are Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

They said this was exemplified by the handling of civil society concerns over mainstream dams, which critics claim has been characterised by lack of transparency and a failure to consult with stakeholders.

The MRC’s donors have picked up on this critique. A statement by the MRC’s Development Partners Consultative Group issued in November said the group is "particularly concerned that public and private stakeholders are not being consulted, and that the cumulative impacts of dams on fisheries and food security are not being given adequate attention".

"The very reason that the 1995 MRC agreement was signed was a recognition that risk of mainstream projects are more significant than those on tributaries," said Bird. "Everyone recognises that these risks need to be addressed. The organisation has failed to explain its role in this debate," he admitted.

Bird said he wanted to ‘’commit to engage with these (civil society) organisations and respond to their concerns in a more open way than in the past. We recognise these concerns; they are not new’’. But he admitted that the MRC has ‘’not been engaging in the public debate effectively’’.

But, in order to address this deficiency, the MRC has been updating its communications strategy to include a detailed policy covering the disclosure of documents, said Bird.

At the same time, he stressed that civil society groups "have to recognise that we are an intergovernmental organisation. At some stage, the discussions that take place in the MRC are very sensitive and this can constrain how open we are to some degree’’.

"It is one thing to say that he is committed to good communication with all groups. What we want to see are details of what he is going to do," said Premrudee Daoroung, director of the Bangkok-based environmental organisation TERRA that was behind the Mar. 27 protest letter.

"If he (Bird) is true to his word, the MRC needs to examine what forums or platforms for discussion and consultation it can set up that are different to those established by Mekong governments. We must also see the immediate release of documents relating to mainstream dams to get feedback from local people who could be adversely affected by the," she explained.

The current focus of much of the discontent aimed at the MRC revolves around the Don Sahong dam, which will be built on the Mekong mainstream at a location in Laos known as Khone Falls, where the river forms a complex network of narrow channels before flowing into Cambodia.

The dam will block the deepest channel on that section of the river and only one migratory fish can easily pass through at the peak of the dry season, April to May, when the water level of the Mekong is at its lowest. This will effectively stop the dry season migration of fish between the feeding habitats of the Tonle Sap Lake and upstream breeding zones in Laos and Thailand.

According to Bird, the MRC Agreement is very clear about the obligations of member states in relation to development on their respective sections of the River.

Development on the Mekong mainstream is subject to notification by member countries only. Mainstream projects are subject to prior consultation between countries with a view to reaching agreement. Any development involving the diversion of water out of the Mekong in the dry season must proceed on the basis of the agreement of all members.

"The agreement is quite clear that prior consultation should take place before the implementation of the (Don Sahong) project and it should be timely. Obviously ‘timely’ and ‘implementation’ are the two terms about which there is debate," he said. "If notification could be done later, this could lead to delays in the project. This is an incentive for the Government of Laos to follow the process."

Bird said that the MRC has so far received no formal notification of the Don Sahong project from Laos, although it had been asked by Vientiane to review and provide comment on the project’s draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

"The information we have received so far (about Don Sahong) is unofficial," said Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee (CNMC). "We have not received it from member countries."

"According to the procedure, prior notification should come attached to the feasibility study. But up until now projects are just an idea, others are in the process of feasibility study and have not been finalised. In order to follow the process we must wait for the feasibility study to be completed," he added.

"Within the draft EIA, we have pointed out some misunderstandings on the part of the consultants about the notification and prior consultation proceeding," said Bird.

The Mar. 27 letter called on MRC to release this advice together with an economic valuation that they said the Commission has done on the potential loss of fisheries resulting from the dam project.

"This is a relationship between us and the Lao Government," said Bird of the MRC’s advice. "It is the responsibility of the Lao government to share with other members and we would need permission to circulate it more openly."

Bird said that no notification had yet been given to MRC by Phnom Penh over its intention to build a dam on the Mekong mainstream in Kratie province, central Cambodia.

The MRC faces a more general concern about its effectiveness, particularly in comparison with other regional initiatives such as the AsDB’s Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) programme.

"MRC only covers four countries. By definition they have a problem with dialogue with Burma and China. GMS covers six countries, so it can play an important role," said Arjun Goswami, AsDB country director for Cambodia.

While Pich Dun believes that MRC will remain a vital organisation, he says its lack of tangible outputs is a weakness. "The MRC up until now works on growing our knowledge base about the river and protecting the environment. Sometimes they are just like a policeman saying protect the environment, protect the environment," he added.

"This is a weakness in that we do not go for tangible outputs like development projects, like hydropower dams," he added. "If we had this we could raise our profile."

"Our role is different (from GMS)," countered Bird. "We are a facilitator of cooperation in the basin. Historically, our role has been much more oriented to studies and gathering information. Now that we have that we can more forward and look at development opportunities in the short, medium and long term."