Mekong decisions need civil society input

Bangkok Post 17 October 2010 EDITORIAL

Late last month the government of Laos submitted plans to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) for the proposed 1,260-megawatt Sayaboury hydropower dam project on the Mekong River, formally confirming the government's intention to proceed with the project despite pressure from Thai and international NGOs to abandon it on the grounds that it would bring widespread environmental consequences.

While this project is totally inside Laos, Thailand is deeply involved since the Mekong forms most of the country's long border with Laos and many Thai communities depend on the river and its adjacent ecosystems. Moreover, the dam is being built by a Thai company, and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) has agreed to purchase virtually all of the electricity, which is to be delivered through a transmission line to an Egat substation in Loei province.

Thailand's experience with large power projects in recent years has shown that it is essential for transparency and citizen participation to be part of the process from the very beginning. However, as a report last week from Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) makes clear, environmental groups are deeply suspicious that there is an attempt to push the dam-building process forward in an opaque manner and without the participation of potentially affected groups.

In an Oct 13 letter to Jeremy Bird, the CEO of the MRC, the NGO Save the Mekong writes: ''The Sayaboury dam project documents, submitted to the MRC Secretariat by the Laos government thus initiating the PNPCA [Procedure for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement, the MRC's prior consultation process], have not been released to the public and represent a complete failure of transparency; this despite the fact that a stated principle of the PNPCA is transparency.''

The letter goes on to say that despite the transparency pledge, the MRC's attempts to explain the actual procedures for the PNPCA process ''contain wording that is deliberately ambiguous'' and there is ''no commitment to consultation with the public''.

Mr Bird defended the PNPCA and the MRC, an intergovernmental body made up of representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. ''The fact that a forum exists among the four Mekong countries to discuss the transboundary impacts of mainstream development demonstrates the willingness to engage in environmental diplomacy,'' Mr Bird was quoted in the IPS article as saying.

He said: ''Although the prior consultation on specific projects does not formally require additional public participation, it does not exclude it either. In the near future, Lower Mekong Basin countries will discuss how to involve relevant stakeholders through public participation and consultation relating to the prior consultation process.'' While this response generally affirms the good intentions of the MRC with regard to transparency and public participation, it does seem ambiguous.

Sayaboury is just the first of some 11 proposed hydropower projects on the lower Mekong, nine of which are in Laos.

According to Save the Mekong, the Sayaboury dam will submerge 2,130 homes, and around 200,000 people, many of them Thai, will ''suffer impacts to their livelihoods, income and food security''.

China is operating three dams in Yunnan province and a fourth, the world's highest, is due to be completed at at Xiaowan in 2012. Earlier this year, the MRC said river levels in southwest China were at their lowest in 50 years.

On Sept 10, representatives from Mekong communities in North and Northeast Thailand submitted a letter to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva asking him to cancel the plan to purchase electricity from the dam project. Another letter was submitted by 50 Thai civil society organisations, and the Thai Peoples Network for the Mekong, also asking the Mr Abhisit to cancel the plan.

''The decision of the governments has been only among the political and official state sector, which has ignored the participation of civil society and neglected to fully consider the negative transboundary impacts that would be caused to Thailand and other downstream countries,'' says the letter. I

t is unlikely that Mr Abhisit decide to cancel the plan at this time, but hopefully he will agree that it is essential that a thorough and inclusive examination of all the potential ramifications of the project be completed before construction gets under way.