A unique public discussion held in Laos on the mainstream dams

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In October
18th, 2012 a round table discussion on mainstream dams took place in
Vientiane at the French Centre. The event was part of the 9th Asia EuropePeople’s Forum. The objective of the session was to discuss the institutional
processes related to the decisions on the mainstream dams. The organisers of
the event were HELVETAS Laos, Mekong Energy and Ecology Network (MEE Net),
Siemenpuu Foundation and Asia-Pacific Network on Food Sovereignty (APNFS).
Around 65 people attend the event.

The panellists around the table were:
  • H.E. Mr. Touch Seang Tana,
    Chairman, Commission for Mekong River Dolphin Conservation & Eco-tourism,
    Cambodia
  • H.E. Viraphone Viravong, Vice-Minister,
    Ministry of Energy and Mines, Lao P.D.R (Head of delegation in Xayaburi
    consultation)
  • Mrs. Pakawan Chufamanee,
    Director of Mekong Management Bureau, Department of Water Resources, Thailand
  • Dr. Dao Trong Tu, Head, Vietnam
    Union of Science and Technology (VUSTA)
  • Mr. Hans Guttman, CEO, Mekong
    River Commission Secretariat
  • Mr. Rick Switzer, Regional
    Environment, Science, Technology and Health (ESTH) Hub Chief for East and
    Southeast AsiaUS Embassy to Thailand
  • Mr. Witoon Permpongsacharoen,
    Director, Mekong Energy and Ecology Network
  • Ms. Lam Thi Thu Suu,
    Coordinator of Vietnam Rivers Network
  • Samuel Martin from HELVETAS
    Laos acted as the moderator.
There haven’t
been many open public discussions in Laos on the Xayaburi project and other
possible mainstream dams so the session was very unique. The panelists
represented well the spectrum of different stakeholders: government officials,
civil society and development partners. The discussion was constructive and
dialogue took place in good spirit. It became clear that there are still
differing views among the member countries of Mekong River Commission (MRC) whether
the consultation process (Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and
Agreement, PNPCA) on the first mainstream dam, Xayaburi in Laos, has been
completed or not. Vice Minister Viraphone considered that it has been completed
whereas representatives from Vietnam and Cambodia viewed that consensus has not
been reached yet. Several panelists and participants raised concerns on the
knowledge gaps of the impacts of the dam and on the potential unequal
distribution of costs and benefits. This would require further impact
assessments and evaluation on alternatives. H.E. Viraphone pointed out that
from official Lao perspective there is enough data and Laos should have the
right to develop its water resources. H.E. Touch Sean Tana from Cambodia
suggested that instead of further data there should be a security fund
established by the project developer – so in case of negative impacts these
could be compensated from the security fund. Thailand’s representative, Mrs.
Pakawan Chufamanee, highlighted the question of whether 6 months for the PNPCA
is enough and that more time would make the process better and allow also wider
participation in the process. Development partners and MRC were asked to take a
more active role in fostering the consensus building. USAID representative
emphasized the sovereignty of the countries to make decisions and also the
importance to do it based on the best scientific data available. He also
suggested that from his personal view more important than the legal
interpretation is the spirit of the Mekong Agreement on the importance of
building consensus on decisions with major transboundary implications.  Hans
Guttman, CEO of Mekong River Commission, highlighted that MRC does not have an
arbitrary role in case there are disagreements in interpreting the results
of processes like the PNPCA.
The key
recommendations given by different stakeholders during the discussion included:
  • More open dialogue and more participation
    was recommended for the PNPCA and processes of decision-making on
    mainstream dams
  • The role of CSOs in the PNPCA process
    should be increased
  • Some panelists emphasized the importance
    of precautionary principle and also recommended ‘time out’ for the first
    mainstream dam until there is more information available on its impacts
  • Lao representatives asked for better
    cooperation spirit in the MRC consultation processes
  • In possible future PNPCA processes the consultation
    should be started well before the construction of the dam – otherwise
    possibilities to openly assess the project are limited as developer has
    already invested considerable money for the project
  • Most of the panelists agreed that 6 months
    for the PNPCA process is too short a time
  • The 1995 Mekong Agreement and the
    procedures of PNPCA leave a lot of room for interpretation – suggestions
    were made to limit the chance of differing interpretations
  • To consider whether there could be a
    security fund from the dam developer side to compensate for any negative
    impacts
  • There is a need to consider how concerns
    and needs of affected communities could be better reflected in the
    decision making processes
  • A joint visit of Lao government and civil
    society representative was suggested to the site of Xayaburi and to the
    resettled villages