This aerial photo dated July 15, 2020 shows a view of the Ban Ladhan Mekong River Super Major Bridge some 230 km north of Vientiane, capital of Laos. (CREC-8/HANDOUT VIA XINHUA)
VIENTIANE – The governing board of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has approved a milestone document that clarifies guidelines for hydropower project designs to minimize the impact on ecosystems and communities along the largest waterway in Southeast Asia.
The two guidelines (Preliminary Design Guidance (PDG) and Guideline on Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TbEIA)) point out exactly what to do in minimizing cross-border environmental impacts … Members will see how beneficial the guidance is, not just to their own country and local communities, but in working together with their neighbors.
Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat
Besides the revised Preliminary Design Guidance (PDG), the MRC joint committee also agreed on a Guideline on Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TbEIA). Given the transboundary nature of a river flowing through the four MRC member countries, namely Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, a TbEIA would measure how a project affects a neighbor, said a statement issued by the MRC on Tuesday.
The agreement allows the TbEIA to be tested and applied by countries and developers, with the MRC's technical support. It gauges how a hydropower dam or any large water infrastructure project, such as irrigation diversion or navigation work, affects issues like water flow, sediment transport, water quality and fisheries, which may adversely impact river ecosystems and vulnerable communities at the transnational or regional level.
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"This is a historic breakthrough for MRC cooperation after years of discussion. The two guidelines point out exactly what to do in minimizing cross-border environmental impacts," the statement quoted CEO of the MRC Secretariat Anoulak Kittikhoun as saying. "Members will see how beneficial the guidance is, not just to their own country and local communities, but in working together with their neighbors."
As for the PDG for hydropower projects, it has undergone a long process of negotiation and clarification. The first PDG was approved in 2009 in line with each country's original commitments to the 1995 Mekong Agreement. It covered six areas: sediment transport and geomorphology, water quality, aquatic life, fish and fisheries, dam safety, and navigation.
Yet over the years, Mekong stakeholders identified "gaps" in the PDG that were also transborder issues: hydrology and hydraulics; and "riparian communities and river-based livelihood." These have implications for the millions of fishing and farming families who somehow rely on the Mekong for daily sustenance.
Boats travel along the Mekong River in front of high-rise properties and under-construction buildings in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on May 12, 2020. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP)
For current hydropower projects, the updated PDG can provide guidance for operations. For future projects, it can offer guidance for good design, plus effective mitigation measures regarding construction and operation, said the statement.
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"This PDG is gearing us toward projects that are both economically viable and environmentally friendly, more protective of the river's resources while safeguarding people's livelihoods," said Kittikhoun.
The MRC joint committee meets twice a year to discuss management, organization and cooperation.
The MRC, an intergovernmental organization, was established in 1995 to boost regional dialogue and cooperation in the Lower Mekong River Basin, which serves as both a regional platform for water diplomacy and a knowledge hub.