The Mekong River Commission says it is strengthening its powers to help communities
placed at risk by hydroelectric dam developments on the river system.
The MRC Joint Committee was meeting in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday and today to consider
ways "to strengthen internal co-ordinating mechanisms for water use monitoring"
under the agreement.
Last November the MRC Council representing the four Lower Mekong countries (Cambodia,
Laos, Vietnam, Thailand) agreed on ground-breaking procedures for prior consultation
and agreement on river developments.
The commission has specifically stated it supports the concerns of people living
in the Sesan river valley, Ratanakkiri, where the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments
are planning a joint $400 million hydro dam project.
The Sesan Protection Network says downstream villages have already been hard hit
by unannounced water releases from the first of the Yali Falls series of dams, built
by Electricity of Vietnam.
Since the Yali Falls 720MW dam began generating in 2000, Sesan villagers have reported
more than 30 human deaths and unusual floods caused by erratic releases, as well
as a decline in fish stocks and water quality, said a March 16 statement from NGO
Forum on behalf of the Sesan Protection Network.
Promises of compensation for deaths and damage since commissioning in 2000 have not
"We have not been treated fairly in the past in the case of the Yali Falls dam,
and we are very upset the government did not consult us before talking with Vietnam
about this [latest] plan. We want to be informed of the government's plans, we want
to have a say," said Khlan Leam, a resident of Andong Meas district in Ratanakkiri.
"We want to be informed of the government's plans, we want to have a say,"
About 90 communities comprising 55,000 people live close to the Sesan, a large Mekong
tributary, which flows from Vietnam's central highlands through Ratanakkiri and Stung
Treng in north-east Cambodia.
The MRC, responding to Post questions, said the Vietnam government had acknowledged
"there have been a few deaths related to a specific water release in the year
2000. There has not been any official confirmation of deaths linked with changes
in water quality. Testing has not revealed significant changes in water quality."
Vietnamese and Cambodian energy officials announced in February they were commissioning
feasibility studies of three locations for a new 200 megawatt plant and the Sesan
option was most favoured. The Vietnam-Laos Joint Stock Investment and Development
Co is proposing up to five power dams on the Sekong River, a major Mekong tributary
which flows into the Sesan. The Mekong itself is lower this year because of the construction
of large dams in China, and fish catches have been affected.
The World Bank, which funded the Yali Falls transmission lines with the Swedish government,
assured NGOs last year that Electricity of Vietnam was taking "immediate action"
to assess the damage caused by Yali Falls.
But an environmental impact assessment promised several years ago has not even been
started, according to the NGO Forum.
"Until late last year the Cambodian government had been working through the
MRC to persuade Vietnam to mitigate the devastation caused by Yali Falls [but] talks
have so far produced only pledges for co-operation on future studies and early warnings
for water releases from Sesan dams,"said the NGO Forum statement.
"Earlier this year Phnom Penh groups were told that responsibility for Sesan
problems had moved from the Cambodian National Mekong Committee to a new Standing
Committee for Co-ordination on Dams and Canals along the borders. The new committee
is reportedly inactive pending approval by Prime Minister Hun Sen," NGO Forum
The MRC, responding to Post suggestions that the Sesan situation makes a mockery
of its "no-surprises" consultative agreement with member governments, said:
"The MRC does not have any supra-national powers. The MRC is not an NGO but
an agency of its member governments; it exists to serve its member governments and
through them, the people of the river basin."
"Policy advice on this issue [Sesan] has been provided over a period of time
to member governments but any decisions made ultimately come from the governments
as sovereign nations. Similarly, any claims for compensation would need to be made
through the established channels of cooperation between Cambodia and Vietnam. To
date no claim has been lodged," said the MRC.
Funding for the proposed joint Vietnam-Cambodia dam will come from the World Bank
or Asian Development Bank, which are both longtime proponents of large hydro development
in the Mekong basin.
The early onset of the drought season and Chinese dams are being blamed for record
low water levels in the Mekong River, say environmentalists.
Tidal movement that usually occurs over three or four days is now taking place daily,
Chainarong Settachua, director of South East Asia Rivers Network told Reuters on
China has constructed two major hydroelectric dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong,
at Dachaoshan and Manwan in the southwestern province of Yunnan, and has plans to
build at least six more.