Tag Archives: mekong

Why the Mekong River Commission Matters

Despite its limitations, the body is key to ongoing efforts to save one of the world’s largest and longest rivers.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is gearing up for another test of its effectiveness following the announcement of Laos’ plans to construct the Pak Beng hydropower project, the third proposed dam on the Mekong mainstream.

Laos must undergo a six-month consultation process before proceeding with the hydropower project, as mandated by the 1995 Mekong Agreement. For the previous two mainstream dams, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, the consultation processes ended in disagreement. Though downstream countries called for further studies of the social and environmental impacts of each dam, Laos nevertheless moved forward unilaterally with construction.

Critics point to the failure of previous consultation processes as evidence that the MRC can never be an effective platform for Mekong river governance. However, the value of the MRC should not be based entirely upon the success of the consultation processes for large infrastructure projects. The organization produces important data and analysis and works to strengthen norms of basin-wide cooperation, both of which can help to encourage more sustainable approaches to Mekong river development.

The MRC-led consultation process for the Pak Beng dam will likely place the MRC under heightened scrutiny in the coming months. The onslaught of criticism has already begun, with the MRC being characterized as “weak,” “all but irrelevant,” and as having a reputation that is “hanging by a thread.” For decades, critics have pointed out that the MRC lacks legally-binding authority over its member states. The 1995 Mekong Agreement that created the MRC does not give downstream states veto power over upstream development projects and no legal mechanism exists to punish states that fail to follow through with the MRC’s principles or procedures. Further, China’s refusal to join the MRC as a full member undermines the power of the regional organization. In the past, China has sidelined the MRC while developing infrastructure on its portion of the river and investing in projects in the lower Mekong states.

The international media has tended to focus on the MRC’s dramatic cuts in staff and foreign funding over the last few years as evidence of a crisis hitting the MRC. However, many reports of these cutbacks fail to point out that since 2010, the MRC has been undergoing a program of dramatic reforms to transfer ownership of the MRC from foreign donors to Mekong countries themselves. One part of this plan is a new funding mechanism in which member countries gradually increase their contributions to the MRC with the goal of achieving financial independence by 2030. If successful, the transfer of ownership from foreign donors to member countries will help the MRC achieve greater public legitimacy in the region and greater buy-in from member country governments. However, it will also require that the organization be much smaller and take on fewer responsibilities.

As is widely recognized in discussions on other Southeast Asian regional organizations like ASEAN, Southeast Asian nations tend to adhere strongly to the principles of non-interference and consensus based decision-making. Therefore, an intergovernmental body like the MRC is unlikely to be given the capacity to make binding regulations on hydropower development any time soon. However, the MRC can use other tools to influence decision makers and enhance the public’s understanding of the issues surrounding the Mekong Basin.

The MRC does data collection, analysis, and reporting work that help to influence decision making on Mekong river management and development. This work covers a wide scope, but much of it tends to get lost in the shadow of the attention-grabbing debates over hydropower. In an effort to respond to the serious risks to the basin posed by climate change, the MRC has developed basin-wide climate change scenarios and worked to coordinate climate change adaptation strategies across the Lower Mekong basin.

The MRC has also conducted extensive research on Mekong fisheries, which has shaped understandings of just how valuable these fisheries are. This is important because national estimates of the revenues from this sector had been dramatically underestimated. Some of the MRC’s most important research has been on the cumulative impacts of the proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream (Strategic Environmental Assessment, 2010; Council Study, ongoing;  ISH0306, ongoing). Dam developers conducting the environmental impacts assessments for individual dams are not doing this type of comprehensive basin-wide analysis that takes into account the effects of cascades of dams.

In addition to its research and analysis work, the MRC also provides one of the few platforms for basin-wide dialogue on contentious issues surrounding Mekong river development. Even when this dialogue does not produce the optimal end-result, substantive benefits are delivered by these processes, which involve not only governments, but also a broader range of stakeholders. The MRC has struggled in the past to promote public participation in its activities. Multi-stakeholder engagement on issues of national importance is inherently controversial within the Mekong countries, where civil liberties are restricted to varying degrees. However, the MRC is making efforts to encourage more public participation in Mekong river governance.

The MRC is currently training its first cohort of RSAT facilitators. RSAT is a basin-wide hydropower sustainability assessment tool designed to help a wide range of stakeholders come together to discuss hydropower sustainability issues in a river basin context. With this tool and through other initiatives, the MRC could help to bridge the divide not only between Mekong governments but also between governments, their people, and the private sector. This is one aspect of the MRC that may set it apart from China’s new Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM), which seems to focus primarily on economic cooperation between Mekong governments.

Much has changed since the signing of the Mekong Agreement in 1995. Climate change, increased private funding for dams, increased Chinese engagement in the Lower Mekong basin, and hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream have all made basin-wide Mekong river governance more important and more complex. All Mekong countries stand to benefit if the MRC has the capacity to continue to provide high-quality knowledge products and act as a platform for improved cooperation on sustainable management of the Mekong River. However, in order to do so, the MRC must work hard to restore its image both within the Mekong region and internationally.

Gabriella Neusner is an intern for the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program and a second year graduate student at American University’s School for International Service.

Source: The Diplomat

Indochina Aviation Centre Introducing Bizav to Mekong Region

First-time MEBAA exhibitor Indochina Aviation Centre (Stand 936) is here to introduce potential customers to travel opportunities in the Mekong region and to meet with current partners and clients. “We want to tell people that the region is open,” said Indochina Aviation director and founder Christian Mosebach. “People might not think about traveling to the region, and we want to make them feel more confident.”

Indochina Aviation Centre was founded in 2012 to provide ground handling and trip planning services in Myanmar and Cambodia, initially for airlines. A year later, the company added business aviation, government and military customers in the entire Mekong region, which includes Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Indochina Aviation’s services include ground handling, permits, catering, hotel arrangements and fuel access as well as arrangements through a sister company for tailor-made trips and tours.

From the beginning, Mosebach made sure that Indochina Aviation put in place its own personnel in each country, people with local backgrounds, but who have lived and been educated abroad. The company does all of its own training to ensure a consistent level of service and is an approved training organization for Myanmar and an IATAexamination center.

Roughly 60 percent of Indochina Aviation’s ground handling and permit arrangements come from business aviation customers, according to Mosebach. The company was hired to make all the ground handling arrangements for U.S. President Obama’s visit to Laos in September.

All Indochina Aviation operations are managed by a central control office in Bangkok, which is open 24/7 and briefs local teams based at airports throughout the Mekong region. Company operations-planning specialists are also responsible for customer invoicing, including incorporating third-party billing from other suppliers, and this ensures that accurate invoices are sent to customers, he explained. Indochina Aviation welcomes questions from clients or any operators needing to understand how to fly in the Mekong region, because they will likely become future customers.

As the only ground handling service provider in the Mekong region, Indochina Aviation often works with other handling companies to serve their customers. Business aviation activity has grown in the region, especially in Myanmar where there are 33 airports available for business aviation travelers. Some of these are seasonally busy, and five airports in the country are typically used by customers on a frequent basis. On December 1, Indochina Aviation added full-time ground handling personnel in Mandalay.

Other growth areas in the region include Kawthaung and Savannahkhet (in Laos) and Haiphong (in Vietnam), where investments in tourism are growing. “Many secondary and smaller airports are becoming more popular,” he said, especially in areas where manufacturers are looking for land to build factories away from expensive metropolitan areas. This is especially true in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Business aviation operators traveling to the Mekong region come primarily from Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. Runways at the region’s airports are in relatively good condition, he said, but many facilities are basic, and not all airports are open for night operations. Many lack ground-support equipment, which must be sourced from local airlines, but when doing this, Indochina Aviation takes full responsibility for use of the equipment, according to Mosebach.

Customs and immigration services are available at the larger airports, but at some smaller airports, Indochina Aviation can arrange to transport customs and immigration officials to the airport to clear arriving aircraft. Indochina Aviation is often in the position of educating officials about business aviation, for example, the need to make frequent changes to a flight plan. “Typically, they’re very supportive of business aviation,” he said.

Mosebach is well aware that his company’s 100 employees must deliver outstanding service. “We want long-term relations,” he said. “We’re in the hospitality business, and we want return business.”

Source: AIN Online

China Funds Mekong Road Construction

The Chinese government has funded construction of a 22.5 km road along the Mekong River linking Tonpheung district in Bokeo province with Sing district in Luang Namtha province to facilitate transport and boost northern development.

A signing ceremony for construction of the 225 million yuan (more than 268 billion kip or US$32.7 million) road took place recently in Vientiane between representatives from the Chinese Embassy to Laos and the Lao Ministry of National Defence, the Lao Army Newspaper reported yesterday.

Construction of the seven-metre-width road will commence in January next year and will take 36 months to complete. The project will asphalt and widen the existing unpaved five-metre road.

The road, which will connect Mom village in Tonpheung district with Pakhouaylong village in Sing district, is part of the planned road construction project to link Tonpheung district with the Chinese border over a total distance of 238 km.

Deputy Director General of the Engineering Department of the Lao ministry Colonel Dr Siphonxay Khamthongveun said he believed once the road was operational it would contribute significantly to socio-economic development of the northern region, which shares a border with China. He added the project would also contribute to enhancing security in the region.

The Colonel said the Lao side would continue to seek financial sources to upgrade the remaining section of the 238 km road, which will stretch through the golden triangle area.

Source: Vientiane Times

Changing Mekong Currents Compound Dam Anxieties in Southeast Asia

The government of Laos officially submitted the Pak Beng Dam to the Mekong River Commission in mid-November and has begun preparatory work around the future dam site. While this announcement appears to indicate that the government of Laos and international funders for more than 100 hydropower projects are continuing to move full steam ahead despite serious concerns from downstream countries and affected communities, emerging financial risks and regional shifts are increasingly impacting the risk calculus for future projects.

There are three regional factors disrupting the terrain for investment in large hydropower dams in mainland Southeast Asia. The first is the emergence of Myanmar as a competitor for energy sector investment. Myanmar is an underdeveloped country with significant hydropower potential of up to 100,000 megawatts (MW), nearly four times that of Laos. Western sanctions and domestic instability previously prevented hydropower from moving ahead in Myanmar, and as a result the Salween and Irrawaddy remain largely undisturbed.

Although internal political issues in Myanmar raise questions about the speed and extent of development that is politically feasible, investors are interested. The IFC is supporting a country-wide Strategic Environmental Assessment for hydropower development, and there have been a plethora of Thai-Chinese joint projects in the Salween River Basin announced in recent years. These projects will compete strongly for financing that previously may have flowed towards projects in Laos.

The second trend is the economic slowdown in China. China’s role in designing and constructing more than half of all large dams globally means that it would previously have been a likely replacement for any loss of funding from ODA donors or MDBs. However, there is emerging evidence that China’s economic slowdown may impact the ability of Chinese developers to get financing for large infrastructure investments abroad. Chinese banks were previously given political mandates to support projects abroad in strategic sectors such as hydropower, mining, and fossil fuels. Even in cases where financing analysts recognized high project risks, such as the Myitsone Dam in Myanmar, the political mandate and the influence of large investment companies meant that loans gained approval.

While supporting unprofitable projects was possible in years of fast growth, the central government is increasingly concerned over China’s rising stock of non-performing loans. As year-on-year growth forecasts drop to a range of only 6.5-4.5 percent for 2016, financial institutions in China are increasingly under pressure to rein in bad debt. China’s debt issue is now widely recognized, and concerns over debt prompting a recessionhave prompted greater consideration of risks by Chinese regulators.

This may lead to a drop in support for risky projects such as hydropower projects, where profit margins are returned over long periods of time, subject to shocks in electricity pricing and demand, and face long term maintenance costs. Anecdotal evidence shows this is already happening: China Export-Import Bank has a hold on loans for six hydropower projects in Myanmar until political issues over the Myitsone Dam are addressed. In Laos, Chinese developers are postponing the construction of some tributary dams due to the inability of Chinese banks to follow up on funding the continued development of projects.

This raises the question: if China becomes unwilling to fund the controversial and potentially risky projects on the Mekong mainstream, who will? All of the signed MOUs for mainstream Mekong hydropower are build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) projects. Neither Laos nor Cambodia has the financial strength to finance such large projects themselves. Practical concerns over losing money have led many Chinese hydropower companies to shift from the BOOT model, where they have to take on loans directly, towards a sub-contracting model that allows Chinese companies to avoid long-term ownership and management risks while continuing to export the design, procurement, and construction of dams.

This appears to be what happened with the Don Sahong Project, which is owned and financed by a Malaysian company called Mega First but will be built by Sinohydro. In other cases, Chinese firms may projects into joint ventures to share the risk: the Pak Beng project, which has been on the books as a Datang Hydropower project for years, has apparently shifted to a joint venture with a Thai company.

Finally, the severe drought in 2016 has highlighted the need for a more coordinated approach to water management throughout the basin. Food security and livelihoods have been impacted throughout the region and particularly in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, with up to half of the Delta’s paddy affected by encroaching salinization during the worst drought recorded in 90 years. In Thailand the 2016 drought prompted the government to announce intensive irrigation plans to draw water from the Mekong tributary system when reservoirs ran dry. This stirred regional controversy, as the diversion of water was done without consultation through the MRC and in the face of concerns from Vietnam and Cambodia.

The extreme challenges posed by the drought and growing recognition of emerging political and financial risks have brought the issue of optimization of resources to the forefront of the conversation about regional development. Climate change predictions anticipate more flooding and more drought in coming years, making optimization planning vital if Mekong countries want to efficiently operate cascades in an uncertain water future. According to one senior engineer at the Mekong River Commission, these risks mean Laos will likely only end up building five of the nine proposed dams, including Xayaburi and Don Sahong. This is not unanticipated—globally, most river basins do not proceed with construction for all proposed hydropower projects. This raises questions as to which planned projects will ultimately be built.

The time seems ripe for Laos to consider alternative development options and better cumulative project analysis to ensure that it makes the best decisions about which projects will move forward. There are emerging models and analytical tools that can explore multiple development scenarios and compare the benefits and costs across a variety of sectors, such as The Nature Conservancy’s Hydropower by Design concept. Utilization of these tools could help Lao decision-makers explore different development options that would provide similar amounts of power with differing levels of social and environmental impacts.

It is clear that the government will not end up with a hundred percent of the planned projects currently on the books and considered in its revenue plans. The earlier Lao officials start to consider alternative development scenarios, the higher the likelihood that high-revenue, low-impact options will remain on the table and the more strategic their decisions about which projects to pursue will be.

Courtney Weatherby is a research associate with the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Source: The Diplomat

Human Trafficking Needs Urgent Action: Mekong Nations

Human trafficking continues to flourish within the region, requiring a joint effort by the Mekong countries to actively stamp out the trade and penalise those responsible.

Human trafficking is harmful to socio-economic development and social order in the region and could worsen when the ASEAN Economic Community is fully integrated.

Speaking at the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) meeting in Vientiane yesterday, Minister of Public Security, Major General Somkeo Silavong stressed that human trafficking was destructive and should be tackled more vigorously.

Human trafficking is one of the most harmful crimes and is transnational. It involves the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them, he said.

Action is being taken to address the root causes of human trafficking and support the recovery and reintegration of victims. Joining together to address this issue is the responsibility of everybody in society, he added.

He said human trafficking had become a highly profitable business and now ranked third behind the arms trade and drug trafficking.

The victims of trafficking are mostly young women, and girls and boys under the age of 18.

Maj. Gen Somkeo said the linking of regional and international economies, the rapid development of IT, easy transportation, free movement of people and other issues had made it easier for traffickers to carry out their business.

Laos and the other Mekong countries have reaffirmed their commitment to work with neighbouring countries to combat human trafficking more effectively.

In a bid to curb human trafficking, the six lower Mekong countries – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – signed a Memorandum of Understanding on COMMIT in 2004.

Some experts and researchers said most human trafficking victims illegally entered neighbouring countries to seek work because they came from poor areas and needed money to support their families.

Other reasons for migration to other provinces or countries are limited job opportunities in Laos and a lack of employers in the form of factories and companies.

Experts said the sectors concerned needed to persuade families to provide their children with information about human trafficking, so they were aware of the risks.

Raising awareness among children and young people about the potential benefits and dangers of migration is very important, and requires the government and the authorities concerned to work together, they said.

Statistics for 2012 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime show that about 27 million people in 127 countries around the world, including Laos, fall victim to human trafficking every year, with 70-80 percent being women and children.


Source: Vientiane Times

Mekong Nations Strengthen Partnership to Combat Human Trafficking

Laos has reaffirmed its commitment to work with its neighbouring countries Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to combat human trafficking across the Mekong region.

The Mekong countries will enhance their joint efforts to track down and punish those who carry out this scurrilous trade and help the victims to return home.

This was the message delivered by the Head of the Secretariat of the National Steering Committee on Human Trafficking, Colonel Dr Phengsavanh Thiphavongxay, when addressing the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT), taking place in Vientiane from November 23-24.

Human trafficking is the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them, Col. Dr Phengsavanh said.

The smuggling of migrants involves the procurement for financial or other material benefit of the illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident.

Col. Dr Phengsavanh said that virtually every country in the world is affected by these crimes. The challenge for all countries, rich and poor, is to target the criminals who exploit desperate people and to protect and assist victims of trafficking and smuggled migrants, many of whom endure unimaginable hardships in their bid for a better life.

Col. Dr Phengsavanh said the member countries have focused on the implementation of the programme, based on the capacity and real situation of each country, in cooperation with international organisations and civil society. Each country has met with varying degrees of success.

This week’s meeting is a follow-up to the last one held on February 18-19 in Bangkok to review and further develop an action plan to implement Phase 4 of the regional programme.

During this meeting we will get an update on the progress of Phase 4, under which each country has conducted activities with a focus on outstanding events, he said.

Col. Dr Phengsavanh noted that participants would discuss the sustainability of the programme, work to identify victims and referral mechanisms, the involvement of young people and social organisations, and progamme priorities for 2017.

He called on participants to take charge and be decisive, to discuss matters frankly and fully, and to be creative and effective, so that the meeting could achieve its targets.

Some experts and researchers said they were afraid that human trafficking would get worse when the ASEAN Economic Community is fully integrated, referring to the regional bloc’s aspirations to create a single market with a free flow of goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labour by 2020.

Between 2006 and 2015, thousands of victims of trafficking were officially repatriated from neighbouring countries. They were mostly women, and girls and boys under the age of 18.

The meeting was attended by representatives from the UN-ACT Regional Office, the COMMIT Task Force and other invited guests from the Mekong region.

Source: Vientiane Times

Luang Prabang Awaits Decision on Mekong Railway Bridge

A Chinese construction company will soon visit Luang Prabang to decide on suitable locations for a railway bridge across the Mekong River and a port that will be used to handle the construction materials needed to build the railway.

The railway bridge is part of the planned 427-km Laos-China railway that will run from the Chinese border to Vientiane.

The construction company and provincial authorities will look at possible sites for the bridge and the port, which will receive construction equipment shipped in by river.

A provincial official, who asked not to be named, told Vientiane Times on Thursday “The railway bridge may be built in the town of Luang Prabang, not far from a new bridge that will be built across the Mekong to link the town to Chomphet district.”

This site is not thought to be within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site, for which a preservation order exists.

The provincial Public Works and Transport Department and provincial Natural Resources and Environment Department will consider whether the sites proposed by the construction company are suitable.

It is not known when construction of either the bridge or the port would begin as the Chinese company has not yet supplied any details.

Minister of Planning and Investment Dr Souphanh Keomixay addressed the issue at the National Assembly this week, answering questions put by Assembly members concerning the railway, with construction scheduled to begin in December.

The Laos-China Railway Project is estimated to cost about US$6 billion and will run from the border area of Boten in Luang Namtha province to Vientiane. It is scheduled for completion in 2021. The project is 70 percent owned by China and 30 percent by Laos.

Minister of Public Works and Transport Dr Bounchan Sinthavong told the National Assembly that the railway will run from the Chinese border to Vientiane and the next phase will extend the track to Thailand.

A railway will also be built to connect Khammuan province’s Thakhaek district to the Vietnamese border, from where it will run to a coastal port in Vietnam. Another track will be built from Thakhaek to the Cambodian border.

The Laos-China railway will have a 1.435-metre standard-gauge track. There will be 33 stations, 21 of which will be operational initially.

There will be 72 tunnels with a total length of 183.9 km, representing 43 percent of the railway’s total length. The line will also have 170 bridges totalling 69.2 km in length, accounting for 15.8 percent of the total. Passenger trains will travel at 160 km per hour, while the speed of rail freight will be 120 km per hour.

Source: Vientiane Times

Govt Proceeds with Planned Mekong Hydro Project

The government has informed the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that it will proceed with the planned development of a new Mekong hydropower project in Pakbaeng district, Oudomxay province.

The MRC Secretariat said on its website that it has received notification from the Lao government that Laos will undertake the formal process of prior consultation on the planned 912MW hydropower scheme in the northern province.

The run-of-river dam will be built on the Mekong mainstream, and is designed to discharge a flow of 5,771.2 cubic metres of water per second, according to the MRC.

The Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat submitted on November 4 a detailed description of the planned project to the MRC Secretariat for its review and further action to inform other member countries about the project’s scope and other requirements under the prior consultation process.

Within the next month, the MRC Secretariat will review the document and verify its compliance with the rules before forwarding the case to the MRC’s Joint Committee, which comprises representatives of the four member countries at the head of department level where the consultation takes place.

The prior consultation is part of the MRC’s procedural rules on cooperation on water use in the Mekong mainstream: the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA). Under the procedures, any infrastructural project using mainstream water during the dry season within the same basin, as well as during the wet season between two basins, must undergo the prior consultation process.

Applicable projects include large-scale irrigation and hydropower development projects which may cause significant impacts on the environment, water flow and quality of the Mekong mainstream.

In the prior-consultation process, with technical and administrative support from the MRC Secretariat, the notified member countries will review technical aspects of the project, assess any possible impacts on the environment and livelihoods along riparian communities, and suggest measures to address those concerns.

The member countries aim to come to an agreement on how the consulted case should proceed. It is not meant to approve or deny the proposed project. This process normally lasts six months, but could be extended further by the Joint Committee.

The MRC has so far experienced two prior consultation cases – the Xayaboury and Don Sahong hydropower projects, both of which are located.

In both cases, agreement was not reached at the Joint Committee level and they were referred to the MRC Council, the organisation’s highest body, with the ministers from the four countries. The council was also unable to reach unanimous conclusions on these cases.

In the case of Xayaboury, the process prompted the Lao government and the developer to conduct their own environmental impact assessment and to invest an additional US$400 million to revise the dam’s design in order to address the issues of fish migration and sediment, two of the main concerns raised during the prior consultation.

From learning lessons from the previous cases, the MRC has reviewed various aspects of the PNPCA to improve its application, including adequacy of documentation and early sharing of information.

Source: Vientiane Times