Aspiring consultants should commit to “best practice” review of Mekong dam




Posted on 10 May 2011  | 
The mighty Mekong River.
© Adam CathroEnlarge
Gland, Switzerland:  Consultants planning to bid for a planned reappraisal of the controversial Xayaburi Dam proposal on the Mekong main stem need to commit to using current best practice in the hydropower industry, WWF has urged.

The call from WWF follows Mekong River Commission deferment of a decision on the dam amid mounting criticism from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, expert panels and environment and community groups of a lack of information on key potential dam impacts – which could affect the food supplies and livelihoods of millions.

“Putting it frankly, the key documentation prepared by consultants for the promoters of this dam has been nowhere near international standards and it reflects very poorly on the consultants involved,” said Dr Jian-hua Meng, WWF International Sustainable Hydropower Specialist.

“WWF has been working closely with the international hydropower industry for many years on improving sustainability standards and we know what best practice looks like, we know that it is available and we would say this is clearly a case where the possible adverse consequences of getting it wrong make it mandatory.”

A recent review of the Xayaburi Environment Impact Assessment coordinated by the WorldFish Centre with participation from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and WWF found that “the gaps and flaws of the assessment lead to the conclusion that the Xayaburi EIA does not meet the international standards for Environmental Impact Assessments”.

Where assessments usually covered impacts upstream, in the project zone and downstream, the Xayaburi EIA “does not cover the upstream catchment area, considers a third of the project zone and does not address impacts beyond two kilometres downstream of the dam”.

On fisheries, a key concern of WWF, the EIA ignored most studies and relied heavily on “a very light field sampling” that captured “less than a third” of the biodiversity in the impact area. 

Just five migratory species from a list compiled in 1994 were mentioned and just three of more than 28 studies of Mekong fish migration were referenced. In contrast, current studies show that 229 fish species exploit habitats upstream of the dam site for spawning or dry season refuges, with 70 classified as migratory.

The review finds the proposed fish passes for the dam ignore design guidelines, lack critical detail including any specification of target species and have a slope and steps which would be challenging even for strong swimming northern hemisphere salmon.

Caution to consultants

In cautioning consultants to commit to current best practice, WWF cited the example of Swiss engineering company Colenco which played a key role in preparing the fish bypass proposals and the also heavily criticised Feasibility Study for Xayaburi dam.

"The standard of work done by Colenco for the Xayaburi proposal is highly unlikely to be acceptable practice in the company’s home country of Switzerland and is a poor fit with the company's stated ethic of environmental and social responsibility,” said Dr Meng.

“At a time when advanced hydropower industry players are making notable efforts to improve the sustainability performance of the projects they promote, companies like Colenco should be especially careful about associating their name with projects where limited studies leave room for a multitude of possible adverse outcomes for the river and the millions that depend on it.”

Assessment should use the best tools
WWF welcomed quoted comments from Viraphonh Viravong, director general of the Laos Department of Electricity that the forthcoming international consulting review of concerns on the dam from neighbouring countries would extend to deciding if the project would go ahead at all.

“Consultants could give a clear commitment to best practice by specifying they will conduct a review on the basis of best available methodologies and tools, in particular the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) which WWF and other stakeholders helped develop in collaboration with the International Hydropower Association,” said Dr Meng. 

“Also highly relevant is the Mekong-specific Basin-wide Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Tool (RSAT), developed in collaboration by the Mekong River Commission and the Asian Development Bank. Together, these are tangible ways to identify options for siting and designing a project with the minimum negative impacts and for assessing the sustainability performance of dams,” he added.

WWF has been advocating a 10 year moratorium on lower Mekong mainstream dams until there is adequate information to assess their impacts, a call now also being made by Vietnam.
The mighty Mekong River.
© Adam Cathro Enlarge
Fishing on the Mekong River in the fading evening light.
© Tan Someth Bunwath / WWF-Cambodia Enlarge

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