Consultation for the 1460MW Luang Prabang hydropower project on the mainstream Mekong River has allowed for more time to discuss and agree on recommended measures to avoid, minimise and mitigate potential cross-border adverse impacts from the project in Lao PDR. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) made the announcement in June 2020 and said it was due to concerns and suggestions raised by Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam and other Mekong stakeholders.

The Mekong River Commission is an intergovernmental organisation which was established in 1995 for regional dialogue and cooperation in the lower Mekong river basin, based on the Mekong Agreement between Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. It serves as a regional platform for water diplomacy as well as a knowledge hub of water resources management for the sustainable development of the region.

Dr Somkiat Prajamwong, Chairperson of the MRC Joint Committee for 2020, said the move would allow for more well-rounded comments and recommendations to be provided to and considered by Lao PDR, in order to address potential transboundary negative impacts resulting from the dam.

The Luang Prabang dam is located about 25km from Luang Prabang town and will be developed by the Luang Prabang Power Company Limited — a company established by the Lao government and PetroVietnam Power Corporation under their 2007 MOU.

The MRC’s prior consultation process obligates an open sharing of extensive data, information and assessment reports of major national infrastructure projects on the Mekong mainstream; independent reviews by the MRC and stakeholders; consideration and improvements in the project design; and joint monitoring to track impacts that need to be addressed as part of adaptive management.

It aims to strike a balance between development needs and environmental and social protection.

“All of this aims to keep the proposing country engaged and accountable. The absence of the MRC and the prior consultation process would allow projects on the Mekong mainstream, that may have significant transboundary effects, to proceed without extensive information sharing or review by the public,” Dr An Pich Hatda, the Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat, said.

Transboundary environmental impacts

In September 2020, the government of Germany announced it would provide equipment for the MRC to monitor transboundary environmental impacts from two mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong River.

The equipment, worth around US$0.6 million, is part of German support to the MRC’s pilot programme on Joint Environment Monitoring of Mekong Mainstream Hydropower Projects, a two-year programme running from 2020 to 2021. The donated equipment includes sediment and discharge monitoring tools, microscopes, water quality loggers, algae torches, a boat, fish tags and traps, and GPS devices.

“While Germany acknowledges that hydropower development can offer a high potential for economic growth, it also poses great challenges in terms of adverse transboundary impacts on the environment and people’s socio-economic well-being,” German Ambassador to Lao PDR, Jens Lütkenherm said.

“We support the MRC in monitoring the impacts from the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams and in advising the four governments on measures to reduce the adverse cross-border environmental impacts,” he added.

The Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams were the first two projects to have been built on the main channel of the Mekong River in Lao PDR. During their six-month prior consultation process under the MRC’s procedures and throughout construction, Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam and other concerned stakeholders called for a programme to properly assess impacts from the dams once in operation. 

The equipment will be installed in at least three locations at each dam to collect data on hydrology and hydraulics, sediment, water quality, aquatic ecology, and fish and fisheries.

Data collected during the pilot stage will enable the MRC to refine proposed monitoring approaches and methodologies for basin-wide application and incorporation into the MRC’s core monitoring work. This, in turn, will make it possible to monitor the efficacy of the mitigation measures of each hydropower dam on the mainstream.

“With the equipment provided by Germany today, we will be able to collect key data to inform us on the effectiveness of the dam facilities, including fish passes and sediment flushing gates,” said Dr An Pich Hatda. “This is the first but crucial step for us to identify some practical adaptive management actions and initial mitigation measures that could eventually help address some of the potential impacts from the two dams.”

In other news, the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS) said it welcomed a statement by Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, pledging to share year-round hydrological data. 

Starting from this year, China said it will share the Lancang River’s hydrological data for the whole year with the Mekong countries. Since 2003, China has provided the MRC with water-level and rainfall data from two hydrological stations located on the Upper Mekong mainstream, at Jinghong and on a tributary at Manan. But this data is only shared during the flood season from June to October. 

China – which is also an MRC Dialogue Partner – expressed its interest in working with the other five Mekong countries to set up a new data sharing platform. 

“We wish to work with you to establish an Information Sharing Platform under this water resources cooperation,” Prime Minister Li said. “The Lancang River originates on the Chinese side, so the Chinese side will play a major role in putting in place a platform that will be fully open to all six Mekong countries.”  

When rivers are borders. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory, image by Lauren Dauphin.

Subnational river borders

Rivers are commonly used to define political borders but, as the authors of a new study claim, global studies have previously failed to quantify the importance of rivers on territorial delimitation at subnational scales.

Sarah Popelka and Laurence Smith have released a new geospatial database of the world’s rivers called Global Subnational River Borders (GRSP). As detailed in the journal Water Policy, their research claims to be the first comprehensive geospatial dataset of subnational and national political borders set by large rivers.

The authors say that while previous studies have emphasised transboundary rivers separating nations, GSBR highlights the abundance of river borders at subnational scales, where numerous domestic stakeholders share jurisdiction in water resource management. Indeed, these should not be ignored when crafting water policy and instituting whole basin management regimes, the authors advise. Rivers are often sited between states, cities and counties and can often be at the centre of complex political controversies involving dams, hydropower, irrigation, flood management and water pollution.

Popelka and Smith’s analysis identify that rivers make up:

  • 23% of international borders.
  • 17% of the world’s state and provincial borders.
  • 12% of all county level borders.

Almost half of South America’s international borders are made up of rivers. North America has 28%, Africa 26% and Europe 21%.