Mekong mainstream dam update

Posted on 13 May 2012

**please note this is an internal update only. It is not published on and is hidden from other websites ***

December 2011 MRC decision on Xayaburi dam
During the Dec 8th 2011 Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the water & environment Ministers of the 4 countries of the MRC formally agreed that further studies were needed before making a decision to go ahead with Xayaburi dam in Laos, and other mainstream hydropower projects.

This decision was announced via a PR from the MRC and confirmed to MRC development partners during the 2nd part of the Council meeting. WWF PR:

The MRC development partners include: Australia, Belgium, Denmark, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, United States of America, Asian Development Bank, IUCN, The United Nations, The World Bank, WWF.

Laos’ Vice Minister of Energy also announced to the MRC development partners during the 2nd part of the Council meeting that Laos will not go ahead with “main” construction work until the three other MRC countries reach an agreement. However, the Laos delegation informed the Council that “parallel studies” and “preparatory works,” which may include road access, housing for workers and relocating impacted communities, will continue in the meantime.

Work at the Xayaburi dam site draws criticism from riparian states
Since early 2012, various sources have reported that several hundred workers are on site working on access roads, banks stabilisation, and camp for workers. In response to these reports, Cambodia’s water resources minister, Lim Kean Hor, sent a strong letter to Laos calling for an immediate halt to construction until after the studies, as agreed last year, are completed.

Cambodia’s reaction followed news that the dam developer, Ch. Karnchang had informed the Stock Exchange of Thailand that it had signed a contract with Xayaburi Power Co to build the 51.8 billion baht dam and to purchase 1.28 gigawatts of power from the dam, and that construction works had commenced on 15 March 2012.

H.E. Mr. Sin Niny, the Permanent Vice-Chairman of Cambodia National Mekong Committee responded that Cambodia will consider pursuing legal action against Laos through an international court if the project construction goes ahead before the four MRC countries reach a consensus.

The Laos Vice Minister for Energy and Mines, Viraphonh Viravong, reassured Laos’s neighbours at a recent MRC conference (May 2012) in Phuket that it was taking seriously the agreement reached in December to halt construction until a full independent environmental impact study could be made. However, Viraphonh also confirmed that some construction work had gone ahead, including roads, by C.H. Karnchang. But this work is supposedly not directly related to the main dam, with Viraphonh adding that this type of work was only for primary and exploration purposes.

It is still not clear exactly what the preparation work entails, making it difficult to monitor, but it clearly signals that despite Laos’ restated commitment to follow the process agreed at the MRC Council meeting last year, the country also appears intent on moving ahead with the construction of the Xayaburi dam.

WWF view:
In response to reports and protests concerning the on-going works at the Xayaburi dam site, WWF issued a statement calling on the MRC to appoint a group of representatives from its Council to visit the proposed dam site to monitor and respond to the situation, and reiterated our key message urging governments to defer a decision on any dam projects on the Mekong mainstream for at least 10 years until proper risk assessment is conducted. See statement at:

Laos calls for review of Poyry review
The Government of Laos also recently requested the French company CNR (Compagnie Nationale du Rhone) to conduct a review of the Poyry review. Commissioned by the Lao government, the Finnish water consulting firm, Poyry, conducted a review that was intended to address concerns raised by Cambodian, Thai and Vietnamese delegates about the project’s impact on biodiversity and fisheries and the effectiveness of the mitigation measures and the MRC design guidelines. The Poyry review concluded that the Xayaburi project meets the MRC’s requirements despite stating that additional baseline data on biology, ecology and livelihood restoration is needed, as well as improved knowledge concerning the proposed passes for migrating fish. The recommendations from the CNR review of the Poyry review have not yet been made public.

WWF view: WWF’s critiques of the Poyry review pointed to failures to fully understand and account for the impacts of the Xayaburi dam, particularly concerning fisheries and sediment flows, and contradictions within the review itself. See our earlier PR about the Poyry review at:

PNPCA process remains murky

The prior consultation process under Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) is a requirement of the 1995 Mekong Agreement for countries to jointly review any development project proposed for the mainstream with an aim to reach a consensus on whether or not it should proceed, and if so, under what conditions.

The Xayaburi dam PNPCA process – the first hydropower project to go through the process - officially started on 22 October 2010 for the Xayaburi dam in Laos.

Uncertainty remains regarding the interpretation of the PNPCA process. Three of the Mekong countries consider the process will only end when consensus is reached. While Laos considers it has complied with all requirements of the PNPCA process, and even though it has not yet led to a consensus it considers it is now completed.

WWF view: WWF believes the PNPCA is the most important process we have for effectively managing hydropower development on the lower Mekong. If the process fails over the Xayaburi dam, it not only fails one critical project, but the ability for countries to make sound decisions about this shared resource is lost, and many years of development support to the MRC will be jeopardized.

On Feb 17th 2012, the development partners sent a joint letter to the CEO of MRC requesting clarification on the status of the PNPCA (and ToR for the studies). This letter was delivered by representatives of Foreign Affairs of Japan, and AusAID (representing all the DPs) to the CEO and members of the MRCS International Coordination and Communication Section.

The MRC’s Joint Committee met on 24-25 April 2012. As part of its duties, the MRC Secretariat presented the status of the Water Use Procedures, including the Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement. This was an opportunity for the MRC Secretariat to clarify the status of the first implementation of the PNPCA. MRC’s CEO, Hans Guttman, advised that following this meeting a full response to the development partner’s letter will be sent.

WWF is actively advocating for the MRC to establish clarity concerning the consensus agreement within the PNPCA process, a critical test to the effectiveness of the MRC and if and how a final decision on the Xayaburi dam is reached. Furthermore, WWF is exploring way to complement the MRC 95 agreement with the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN 97 WC). WWF and partners are organizing workshops in Cambodia and Vietnam in May 2012 to raise awareness about the opportunity that this UN 97 WC could bring to the Mekong.

Xayaburi dam scientific study – TOR development on-going
The four MRC countries approached Japan, and other international donors, late last year to seek funding support to realise the study. The MRC countries agreed that a concept note for this study (to serve as the basis to develop the ToR) was to be prepared by the MRC Secretariat and circulated to the four countries for comments before agreement. 

A draft concept note was shared with the four countries on Jan 19th, noting that the MRC would like to receive comments and suggestions by Feb 6th. Two countries (Laos and Vietnam) requested additional time to respond. The process was to be completed in February, but was delayed twice.

On April 11th the four Mekong countries participated in a meeting in Vientiane to discuss the concept note for the scientific study. It was then agreed that the MRC will finalize it, and share it with the development partners (including WWF), and a scoping workshop will be organised in late June 2012 to gather comments from stakeholder. WWF expects to be invited to participate.

The MRC’s CEO has stated that the MRC study isn’t one study, rather a series of studies looking at a number of issues. In response to the suggestion from the development partners that the MRC study draws on existing studies, the CEO noted that the MRC study would draw on the forward work-plans of the MRC Programmes and existing work completed by the MRC and other organisations. At present the Member Countries are still trying to come to an agreement on the scope and timeline of the study outlined in a restricted Draft Concept Note, and once that is achieved work can commence on the more detailed Terms of Reference. 

In parallel, Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee (VNMC) has requested ICEM, the same consulting firm that produced the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment to produce a ToR for a study focusing exclusively on the impacts of dams on the delta. This study would be supported by AusAID and potentially other development partners. Our current understanding is that it will remain separate and stand alone, and will not be merged with the MRC study.

WWF view:  WWF welcomed the agreement by the MRC Council to conduct a comprehensive study on the sustainable management and development of the Mekong River, including the impacts of mainstream hydropower projects. The Mekong countries need to agree a roadmap for conducting the scientific studies, building on the recommendations of the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment.

The study should provide an opportunity to address identified knowledge gaps (especially the gaps identified by the SEA of the Lower Mekong mainstem dams produce in 2011 by ICEM for the MRC), notably concerning fisheries and sediment flows, and provide an opportunity to account for the full value of environmental, economic and social services currently provided by the basin. This comprehensive, evidence-based and consultative study should inform the decision-making process as to whether proposed Lower Mekong mainstream dams, including the Xayaburi Hydropower Project, should proceed.

Above all, WWF urges Mekong countries to establish an environmental master plan for the river, to help ensure sound and effective decision-making and use of the Mekong’s water and related resources for development while protecting the environment. An eco-master plan will require a solid baseline. Without it, it is difficult to plan for future changes to an ecosystem. A baseline is not a list of sub-elements of the ecosystem, it is a demonstration of the understanding of how they operate together as “functional units”; and this includes what are the roles of flows (water, sediment and nutrient) and connectivity.

Coming up….
WWF will be concentrating its efforts over the coming months on filling the gaps in data and understanding to make the best of the opportunity offered with the delay agreed upon by the MRC countries. WWF-Greater Mekong is focusing in particular on what is considered the largest gap, i.e. the impact on sediment flows and how they translate into ecosystem changes, with an emphasis on the delta. WWF will also address the wider issue of sustainability of hydropower development on the tributaries of the Mekong, and provide tools to assess the environmental impacts of all projects in the MRC hydropower database so as to guide the prioritization of the less concerning projects.

WWF will be also closely monitoring the MRC processes regarding Xayaburi, and attending all relevant for a, in our three-fold capacity as Observer to the Joint Committee and Council meeting, member of the development partners to the MRC, and observer to the advisory committee of the MRC Initiative on sustainable hydropower. WWF-GM will also continue to lobby the national government via the four WWF-GM country offices, and to support the emerging civil society with scientific training.

WWF will be delivering a set of new, ground-breaking studies, undertaken by various international experts and expected to be peer-reviewed and published over the coming year.

The studies include:

1. Flow alteration and fragmentation tool
This tool can be used to measure the impact of all the hydropower projects in the MRC hydropower database on the two most concerning environmental dimensions: how the project will change the natural flow of water downstream, and how many ecosystems and how much length of river it will disconnect from the sea. This offer a very rapid assessment of the comparative impacts of 100 projects.

2. Bathymetry evolution study
The study aims to contribute to the understanding of the functional dynamics of the two main channels of the delta system (Cambodia & Vietnam) with a focus on the bathymetrical evolution (changes in the depth of the channel due to erosion of the bottom of the bed or deposition), and its vulnerability to changes in sediment flows. An initial 2D analysis conducted in 2011 highlighted an overall erosion trend of the river banks.

3. Geomorphological stability and impact on habitats

Understanding of the role of clay, silt, sand and gravel in the morphology of the Mekong system from the mountains to the delta, its continuities and discontinuities. Silt and clay have been considered to be the dominant, if not exclusive, sediment flux transiting along the Mekong river. Field survey demonstrates the continuous presence of sand on the banks, from northern Laos to the upper delta. Sand fluxes during monsoon flood plays a major role in the river continuum both in terms of morphology and ecology. This study revaluates the amount of sand transiting from the Upper Mekong in China to the delta, demonstrating that the figures used are probably grossly underestimated, thus that models used to measure the impact of dams are not well calibrated.

4. Sand & gravel in-channel mining

Rapid estimation of quantity & quality of in-channel mining on mainstem of the Lower Mekong river. Sand is the most exploited resource. The trend is alarming. A major issue is the probable relationship between sand-gravel harvesting and river bank retreat + flooding capacity of downstream plains + delta shoreline retreat. There is also a probable impact on the ecology : alteration of the river forms/habitats.

5. Nutrient measurements in the Mekong delta
Biogeochemical information on the surface waters of the Mekong estuary and surrounding coastal areas from satellite observations of ocean color in order to detect seasonal and inter-annual trends. High nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) fluxes directly impact the concentration of phytoplankton in coastal areas.

6. Delta stability
Establish basic principles of delta dynamics, identify sensitive coastal areas, and quantify potential delta retreat due to decreasing sediment input.

The new technical studies will be repackaged into advocacy briefs to aid our outreach and lobbying efforts, and we will deliver a schedule in May detailing when you can expect to receive these products, and associated PR and media materials. A synthesis report will also be delivered in the last quarter of 2012.
Mekong hydropower development - planned, under construction an operational
Roadwork with heavy machinery is seen at the Xayaburi dam construction site.
© Ban Houysouy
Roadwork with heavy machinery is seen at the Xayaburi dam construction site.
© Ban Houysouy,