By Pratch Rujivanarom
Vientiane, Laos, June 15, 2016
THE MEKONG RIVER Commission (MRC) does not have the authority to stop projects even if they have transboundary effects, delegates to the fourth Green Mekong Forum said on Monday, while the Thai Irrigation Department presented a water diversion project to fight poverty.
Around 100 delegates from Mekong River countries and international observers attended the forum in Bangkok to follow the latest developments in infrastructure and water resource management in the Mekong River Region.
It was disclosed at the forum that major development projects are necessary for solving poverty, even though it was admitted that the transborder impacts are real.
Piriya Uraiwong, team leader of the MRC Mekong-Integrated Water Resources Management Project, said the MRC has three missions – promoting and coordinating sustainable water management, supporting data-driven decision-making and enhancing people’s wellbeing.
“Many people often misunderstand that the MRC has the power to stop the projects, but we don’t because we are acting as the facilitator, not the regulator.
“Furthermore, the ongoing projects on the Mekong are constructed within a country’s territory, so we cannot violate their sovereignty by telling them to stop the projects,” he said.
If the MRC member states – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – plan to construct a development project that will affect the Mekong directly, they are supposed to conduct prior consultation with other member states under the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA).
However, the PNPCA process will be the only opportunity for MRC representatives to discuss the project and it will be up to the governments of member states to approve the project.
‘Project owner’s responsibility’
“For the projects, each country holds the responsibility to mitigate the adverse effects for citizens and it will be the responsibility of the project owners to compensate for damage,” Piriya said.
Also at the forum, Chawee Wongprasittiporn, director of the Irrigation Department’s Project Planning Division 2, said the department has proposed a water diversion project from the Mekong for irrigation in Thailand’s Northeast to counter periodic drought and boost farmers’ incomes.
“The Northeast is the driest part of the Mekong River Region. Here the farmers rely heavily on rain and can grow one to two crops per year.
“The irrigation area in the region is only 12 per cent of the total area, or 7.08 million rai [1.3 million hectares],” she said.
“Farmers’ income per household is only about Bt68,000 per year compared to the national standard of Bt137,000 per year.
The project will divert water from the Loei River, one of the tributaries of the Mekong River, in the north of the region and pump it through tunnels to supply a new canal system in the lower part of the region.
The plan could expand the irrigated area in the Northeast to 13.32 million rai and cover 23 per cent of the total area. The minimum budget for the project is Bt100 billion.
The volume of water to be diverted to the system is still under consideration, but it will not exceed 3,000 cubic metres per second.
The project is not expected to affect the Mekong’s natural flow and fish stocks because the diversion will be stopped if the main tributary flow is less than 500cmps.
“Right now we are in the project study process, which is due to finish by the end of this year,” Chawee said.
“Before the project can start, we have to get permission from the Cabinet and pass the PNPCA first.Projects like this are essential to develop the region and increase people’s income. Xayaburi Dam in Laos was also constructed on the same principle,” she said.
However, Le Viet Hoa, a delegate from Vietnam, expressed concern that upstream development projects and water diversion from the river will contribute to more severe salinity in the Mekong Delta and harm the food basket of Vietnam.
“The problem was very serious during the drought last year, as the saltwater intruded up to 95 kilometres inland, while the upper stream projects play a major role on the river flow,” she said.
“So I would like to ask for more information sharing and cooperation among the countries to ensure sustainable water resources.”
The MRC’s Piriya admitted that the mainstream projects posed several threats to the river’s ecology.
Four per cent of the wetlands have already been lost and 11 fish species are now on the critically endangered list.