A new study has called for standardized transboundary impact assessments on all planned hydropower dam projects on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River amid concerns over the threat they pose to the environment and tens of millions of people who rely on the waterway for their livelihoods.
Developers of hydropower projects on the Mekong have relied largely on locally-conducted Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to back their dams, but the Washington-based Stimson Center said these studies often fail to meet international standards and inhibit regional coordination.
“The failure of every current and previous project to incorporate transboundary environmental and socioeconomic impact assessments into project planning makes it impossible to either understand the impacts of individual dams or predict the likely impacts from a full cascade,” the center said in a report Wednesday.
“The lack of data on fish life cycles, agriculture, and other hydrological data is widely recognized as an obstacle to understanding the impacts of individual projects,” said the report, entitled “Letters From the Mekong” and authored by Stimson’s director of the Southeast Asia program Richard Cronin and program research associate Courtney Weatherby.
According to the report, upstream countries such as China and Laos stand to reap most of the benefits of damming the river, while socioeconomic costs will be disproportionately borne by downstream countries—especially Cambodia and Vietnam—as well as by those individuals who subsist on fishing and small-scale farming along the river.
“It is vital that a transboundary impact assessment is initiated for at least one project in the basin in order to begin gathering the data needed to understand the likely impacts on food security and regional stability that these projects will bring,” it said.
Stimson said that at the national scale, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—the four countries which make up the Mekong River Commission (MRC) intergovernmental body overseeing development on the river—lack a single set of data that can be used to objectively compare projects and their impacts throughout the region.
Methodology, the extent of required information, and levels of implementation differ by country, it said, leaving governments without the means to evaluate the full costs and benefits of proposed projects.
“No basis exists to make scientifically sound trade-offs on a national basis, let alone for the Lower Mekong Basin as a whole,” the report said.
The MRC requires transboundary impact assessments and discussions among member countries under its Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) before proceeding with projects on the Mekong mainstream, as outlined in a 1995 agreement that led to its formation.
Laos challenged the PNPCA process in late 2012 when it went ahead with its multi-billion dollar Xayaburi Dam project, despite protests from Vietnam and Cambodia over unresolved questions about its transboundary impact on important catch fisheries and sediment flow.
Laos is now pushing forward with the Don Sahong Dam, located at an important fish migration channel along its southern border with Cambodia.
Meanwhile, MRC efforts to negotiate a transboundary EIA standard have been impeded by disagreements over whether locality or the likely extent of impact should trigger a transboundary EIA.
Stimson said that MRC nations should urgently implement national EIA laws and regulations along with the necessary institutions and capacity-building to enforce them, as well as carry out transboundary EIAs for individual projects along the Mekong.
It also called for the coordinated negotiation of a broader Mekong Standard for transboundary EIAs and eventual acceptance of standards for maximum acceptable transboundary impact.
“At the moment an agreed-upon standard for the entire Lower Mekong Basin remains visionary, but a bottom-up approach based on national EIAs that meet common standards is the most feasible path to arrive at a regional baseline,” it said.
The report said that in the event that MRC negotiations fail to produce a standard transboundary EIA policy due to the body’s dependence on consensus, alternative paths must be considered, such as an independent effort to help move an agreement forward.
It said strong civil society movements, such as that in Thailand, and revised national EIA laws could—with the support of private funding—create an opportunity to design a complete transboundary impact assessment for one of the Mekong’s proposed mainstream projects.
“Doing so could galvanize movement on the MRC’s negotiations, pressure Laos to follow suit with its own dams, and provide a baseline for understanding the regional impacts of a mainstream dam,” it said.