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MRC CEO: “Hydropower development will not kill the Mekong River”

Thuy Linh & Thien Y

“Hydropower development will not kill the Mekong river.” Those words are what Mr Pham Tuan Phan, MRC’s CEO, said to media on the sidelines of Regional Stakeholder Forum on the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) for the Pak Beng hydropower project and MRC Council Study (CS) on February 22-23, 2017 in Luang Prabang. Correspondents for The Mekong Eye interviewed Mr. Pham. 

How do you feel about the Pak Beng hydropower project?
According to the procedures, we have one month to review whether documents and data of the project are comprehensive or not, and 6 months later, we will consider the project on technical aspects. Thus far, we could not give out any comment yet. After 3 or 4 more months, we will conduct another regional consultation meeting on this project. At that time, we will able to give out some certain assessments.

You should note that we had the first day for the consultation process, that was on December 20th last year. The two previous consultation were not as well-identified as that. And this regional stakeholder forum is a new good step among the three consultations. I think, at the moment, this is more noteworthy than the result of evaluation on the Pak Beng project.

There have been more and more hydropower projects on the Mekong river, so what are the challenge to the downstream countries, as well as to the use of sustainable water resources that can be beneficial to all parties?

The hydropower on the Great Mekong will not kill the river. Firstly, I think we should understand this point clearly.

It is true that the dams on the Mekong River will cause certain impacts to the ecosystems throughout the basin. A study in the Mekong Delta, conducted by Vietnam National Mekong Commission, has shown that.

This Regional Stakeholder Forum and the Council Study will offer methodology for researching the entire Mekong basin, and also consider all negative and positive impacts as well on the Mekong mainstream.

Proposed Pak Beng Hydropower dam in Laos (Credit: Pak Beng Hydropower Project )
Proposed Pak Beng Hydropower dam in Laos (Credit: Pak Beng Hydropower Project )


Do you think the opinion of the stakeholders at this forum could create pressure on the Lao government to alter the design of the dam, as well as limit the negative impacst from the Pak Beng dam?

This question will easily put me into a trap (laugh). But I think this regional stakeholders forum is the forum of civil society, of research institutions, of non-governmental organizations to address the concerns, the worries, as well as contributions to the Lao government, to MRC, and even to the developer of Pak Beng dam. This is a very good thing.

I am also very glad that today, such partner as International Rivers also came. Previously, I understood that they do not intend to join the forum, for the reason they fear that other people misunderstand their participation with their recognition on the Pak Beng dam. Of course that is not true.

I think this forum is a very good step to take over the “pressure”, and the contribution of the whole society.

It is said that Laos signed with the investors already, which means everything was decided, so the the stakeholder forum can just be seen as a reference only. What do you think?

We have known well that conccern. So I think the participation of the International River (IR) in this forum demonstrates that concern is not entirely true. You know, IR is a NGO which often oppose projects like this.

In fact, if you look back the Xayaburi project, there has been changes with the actual contribution to Lao government. Dam constructor had also to change the design. According to the data, they have added more than $ 400 million. That is the result of the contribution of people to the need for how to build a dam.

Due to public opinion, Xayaburi has become a model for all Mekong mainstream dams. Currently, the dam is helping fish species to move upstream, as well as downstream from upstream better.

The dam developer used the additional investment of $400 million to improve the sediment discharge more effectively, to make the navigation better. Of course, it takes time to track the performance.

It is obvious that the Lao government approved the Pak Beng project, but I think it does not mean everything has been arranged. If so, why do we still organize this forum? It is very costly and requires a lot of effort. But we still proceed, the forum is also what the members as well as our development partners want to do.

I should mention to my visit to the basin of the Mississippi River Commission (United States). They have conducted public meetings for over for 140 years, with nearly 400 times, each time in a different site along the Mississippi river. Therefore, our regional stakeholder forum is useful, the civil society should involve in.

The PNPCA of Don Sahong project did not achieve the consensus from downstream countries as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. But Laos still the dam, and it is said that currently the overall progress of Don Sahong reachs approximately 30%. So does the PNPCA process still work with the hydropower plans on Mekong mainstream or not?

I can not answer specifically on Don Sahong dam, but in case of Xayaburi project, as I mentioned, it worked.

With Don Sahong, during my visit, the dam developers said that they spend 140.000USD/year to improve fishing around the dam site. They remove illegal fishing nets. Due to a report, fish production in Don Sahong doubled after that. I think it is positive, of course, it’s also necessary asset that report is true or not.

This shows that the consultation works, especially in the case of Laos. There are upstream countries, you know, who even build dams without consultation process. I think civil society should look at the very positive side of the consultation towards the countries of the MRC.

The PNPCA of the Don Sahong case, according to public opinion, is a failure. What are the comments of the Mekong River Commission?

I do not think it failed. As we have seen today, it is a step forward, compared to Xayaburi, as a region-wide forum was conducted. There was no forum on Xayaburi dam. But with Pak Beng, we conduct two.

I have been CEO of MRC for one year, after the construction of Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams, so I can not answer the PNPCA work or not. But according to our internal evaluation, case Don Sahong is not a failure.

Thank you very much!


The above was submitted by freelance journalists to The Mekong Eye. The journalists have chosen to publish under a pseudonym. The original interview was in Vietnamese and translated by the journalist.