Representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are in Sihanoukville today to discuss Laos’ Xayaburi hydropower dam proposal, the first of 12 proposed for the lower Mekong river, with a decision slated for April 22.
The four countries signed an agreement in 1995 to cooperate on managing the river, and the Mekong River Commission was established to implement the agreement.
In an interview yesterday with Post reporter Thomas Miller, Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC, said the decision was “one of the biggest tests of the agreement in 15 years”. A study commissioned by the MRC recommended in September that the countries delay decisions on whether to build dams on the lower Mekong for 10 years, predicting they would have devastating and irreversible impacts on the river’s ecology. Vietnam has publicly opposed the dam, while Cambodian officials have expressed the need for further information.
Meanwhile, NGOs have called on Laos and Thailand to halt the project, issuing sharp criticisms of the environmental impact assessment conducted for the lead Thai company, which did not consider the dam’s impact beyond 10 kilometres.
Jeremy Bird will give up his tenure at the MRC on Monday after three years at the helm. Cambodian Pich Dun will take over on an interim basis.
Do you expect there to be a preliminary recommendation on the dam at the Sihanoukville meeting?
This is not the end of the process; it’s a step in the process, and therefore I’m not expecting that there will be a conclusion at this meeting.
I think the countries will raise a number of questions and concerns that have been raised and publicised quite widely already.
How far the other countries would push for this process to be extended, and what Lao’s response would be is not clear at this stage.
If they decide to approve the project, what’s the next step?
There would need to be a number of commitments from the Laos side to demonstrate that they have addressed the concerns raised by the other countries. And the MRC would have to then review its own monitoring programmes and see to what extent and impact can be measured and identified around this particular project, whether it’s on water quality, or fisheries, or whatever.
What is to be gained from building the dam?
For Thailand and Laos, there is tremendous benefit in terms of electricity development, providing for very fast growth in electricity in Thailand, and for Laos in terms of revenues. And those are appreciable amounts of money compared to the GDP of [Laos].
Despite the concerns that have been raised, Laos has said it is its decision anyway. What’s the point of all the consultations?
Well that’s not quite the right summary of the situation. If you start from the definition of prior consultation in the  agreement it’s quite clear that it says that this is neither a right of any country to veto a project nor is it a right of any country to proceed with a proposed use [of the river] without taking into account the other riparian rights and issues.
Laos has indicated in its statement quite clearly that it’s fully committed to this process and that it’s committed to addressing the concerns of the other countries.
The value of the process and the consultations is that it provides a space for this to happen. What would be the situation if there wasn’t such a body to bring the four countries together? This probably would be dealt with just purely on a bilateral basis.
What recourse do countries have if Laos decides to go forward and they don’t think their concerns have been addressed?
There’s the legal framework which the MRC Mekong agreement provides. If the project proceeds and does cause an impact, then there’s two elements, there’s Article 7 which deals with procedures to follow to stop impacts from happening. So basically one country would notify the MRC of the impact and the other country that was supposedly causing that impact would have to react to stop causing such an impact.
The second element which would come into play would be the conflict resolution procedures of the agreement, which basically progressively go up the country system, from the joint committee to international arbitration.
What are the stakes of this decision for the MRC in terms of its credibility?
I would characterise this as one of the biggest tests of the agreement in 15 years since its signing. A lot of work was put into defining this procedure and the guidelines that go with it. Heads of government have committed to this process. We’ll certainly learn lessons from this.