1997 UN Watercourse Convention to Enter into Force
Vietnam has ratified a United Nations treaty on transboundary rivers, and it is time for other Mekong countries to do the same.
On May 19, Vietnam became the 35th country to ratify the 1997 UN Convention on Non-navigational uses of International Watercourses (UNWC). This is an important global milestone because the treaty required 35 ratifications to enter into force. It will now come into effect on August 17, 2014.
Vietnam’s decision also sends an important message to the Mekong region. While the Mekong River is already governed by an international treaty – the 1995 Mekong Agreement – it has been wrongfully misinterpreted at times by Laos and other governments in the region as meaningless and unbinding.
The UNWC sets out the rules for how governments are expected to share transboundary rivers in a fair way, balancing the rights of upstream and downstream governments. These rules come from decades of international practice across the world. Using various mechanisms such as prior consultations, these rules provide a way to resolve the tensions that can arise when an upstream governments wants to use the river in a way that potentially causes significant harm to downstream governments.
In other words, the UNWC provides a possible way around the gridlock facing the Mekong River Commission.
Indeed, the Mekong Agreement is explicitly based on the draft UNWC. When the Mekong Agreement was drafted, the governments took almost all of the language directly from the text that would later become the UNWC. Unfortunately, the Mekong River Commission has stepped away from using the UNWC as a beacon for how to interpret the Mekong Agreement. If you examine the international law underlying the words that were carefully chosen to be included in the Mekong Agreement, the treaty’s requirements are clear. However if one ignores the underlying international law, as the MRC has done at times, then the treaty appears ambiguous and open to the misinterpretations that have been offered by Laos.
What this means in practice has become alarmingly apparent through the handling of the Xayaburi Dam, the first project to be submitted by Laos to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) for Prior Consultation (PNPCA) under the Mekong Agreement. Instead of responding to the requests from neighboring countries to conduct further studies, Laos moved forward unilaterally with the Xayaburi Dam, beginning construction while Cambodia and Vietnam continued to voice strong concerns about the transboundary impacts. By November 2012, the implementation of the project had advanced so far that Cambodia and Vietnam had little remaining leverage to raise concerns. And yet there has still been no official resolution to the PNPCA process.
Xayaburi Dam has set a dangerous precedent for future cooperation in the Mekong, which urgently needs to be addressed, particularly given the rapid progress towards construction of the Don Sahong Dam. While the 1995 Agreement aims to create an even playing field for upstream and downstream countries, in practice Laos continues to misinterpret the Mekong Agreement and international law, demonstrating a lack of real commitment to shared regional interests.
Vietnam has been steadfast in raising concerns about the impacts of both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. During the PNPCA process for the Xayaburi Dam, Vietnam called for a moratorium on all dam building on the Mekong River for a period of 10 years, as recommended by the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment. However, despite steadily voicing concern within the consultation process and now calling for the Don Sahong Dam to also undergo Prior Consultation, Vietnam has been hindered by regional politics and delicate diplomatic relationships as well as perceived ambiguities in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
By ratifying the UNWC, Vietnam is making a public call for change, for improved governance and more equitable decision-making in the Mekong, and sending an important message that international rivers must be managed by and for all riparian nations, not just one.
At the second MRC Summit held in Ho Chi Minh City in April, the Prime Minister of Vietnam urged Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to also sign on to the Convention. We hope that the Lower Mekong countries will follow Vietnam’s example for the sake of the Mekong River, its future and the people who depend on it. Through this action, Vietnam has offered a fair and equitable solution to the Mekong conflict. We hope that the other countries will listen.
- For more information on the UN Watercourse Convention’s entry into force see a series of blogs by International Water Law Policy
- WWF Factsheet – All you need to know about the UN Watercourse Convention
Mekong Program Associate
Recent Posts in Blog
- Vietnam Leading the Way for Improved Transboundary Water Governance – June 18, 2014
- Don Sahong Site Visit No Substitute for Regional Consultation – March 18, 2014
- Science Takes a Backseat as Xayaburi Dam Continues – December 15, 2013
- Environmental Concerns Prompt Vietnam to Cancel Two Dams – October 8, 2013
- HidroAysén Not the Right Future for Chile – August 14, 2013
Environmental activists are disappointed that leaders from Vietnam and Cambodia failed to call for an immediate halt to construction of two hydro-power dams on the lower Mekong River during the latest ministerial meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Hanoi. The dams are the first two of 11 proposed along the lower Mekong River and are located in Laos. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok that scientists and environmentalists are concerned about the dam’s impact on migratory fish and water-flow affecting millions of people living along the river.
The Lower Mekong River runs from northern Laos down through Thailand and Cambodia to the delta region of Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea. About 60 million people live in the river’s basin. Leaders from countries through which the lower Mekong River flows met last weekend in Hanoi at a ministerial of the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body that conducts research and planning for the watershed.
At the meeting’s close, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said cooperation was key to ensure sustained development along the Mekong, noting “severe negative impacts” from demographic and environmental changes. Mr. Dung pointed to increasing pressure on the river’s waters and related resources along the entire Mekong basin as a result of population growth, water demand and climate change.
Vietnam’s delta region is the country’s main rice producing area, supporting a population of 20 million people. The delta is already experiencing rising salt water intrusion due to lower fresh water flow, which has reduced by 10 per cent during the past 30 years. But environmentalists had called on the commission to address concerns about two dams being planned and built in Laos. Both dams, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong are mainstream dams on the lower Mekong. The U.S.-based non-government group, International Rivers says work on the projects should have been halted immediately.
“This is disappointing. No words on the status of construction on at least two dams that are being built on the mainstream river – the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dam – there is no actions in it,” said Pianporn Deetes, an activist for International Rivers, who had hoped that leaders would condemn the current rush to build the dams. “But the Mekong River needs immediate action from the decision and action from all leaders. It’s very important for member countries to recognize that this is really an international river – an international issue.”
The controversial 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi dam, a focus of debate at a ministerial meeting in 2012, is now 30 per cent complete. Laos has pressed ahead with the project despite earlier concerns raised by Vietnam and Cambodia and calls for a 10 year moratorium to study the likely impact of the dams. Laos also plans to build the 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam, near the border with Cambodia. Environmentalists and scientists say the dam will interfere with the migration of dozens of fish species and the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphin.
“The key concern with the Don Sahong with its the main dry season fish migratory route moving up and downstream over the falls,” says Philip Hersch of the Sydney University’s Mekong Research Center. “Even during other parts of the year while there are other channels the fish can navigate rather the Hor Sahong channel remain the main path through which fish migrate. So we’re talking about a relatively small proportion of the water that would be held back and blocked through Hor Sahong but a very large proportion of the fish migration.”
A study conducted by the Mekong River Commission itself, warned the dams could reduce fish stocks by 300,000 tonnes a year, and would be especially hard felt by millions of people in Cambodia.
The Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams are but the first two of what under current development plans would be a total of 11 dams in Laos and Cambodia along 1,488 miles of the Lower Mekong. But the Commission, set up in 1995, largely has no enforcement powers and relies on individual countries to adhere to pledges made at key meetings.
According to Robert Mather, regional representative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the intergovernmental body’s methods of settling issues are inadequate. “What we saw from the Xayaburi – which was the first time that this process was put into play by the MRC was that it was quite confusing.” Mather continued, “How do we improve it and make the process better the second time around? But we really don’t see a very good process at the moment and I think that’s quite worrisome.”
Senglong Youk from the Cambodia based Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) thinks the commission should be reformed to include civil society groups as stakeholders. “At the current position what we can say as a civil society is that the MRC is like a Paper Tiger, it’s like a postman, it has no power at all. No authority at all to put the pressure on any country specifically like Laos PDR that make the decisions to build the dams on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong.”
Environmentalists are now preparing a campaign to delay the Don Sahong project, which still requires ratification by the Laos National Assembly, expected to take place in December.
Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/18845/laos-recommended-to-consult-mrc-again-on-new-hydropower-project
Updated : 04/05/2014 20:00 GMT + 7
Laos Government should consult Mekong River Commission (MRC) on the construction of a new hydropower project which is projected to begin late this year, said Vietnamese senior state officials at a recent press conference of the 2nd MRC Summit 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City.
Laos officially announced its plan to build the 260MW Don Sahong hydropower project on the river in October last year, the second move after the Southeast Asian country publicized its plan to build Xayaburi hydropower project on the Mekong River in November 2012.
When asked by Tom Fawthrop, the English collaborator of the UK magazine The Economist, at the conference held to conclude the 4-day event, Nguyen Minh Quang, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment said Laos should consult with other MRC members again about the project before taking any move.
“Though already being informed by Lao side that work on the project will be started by the end of this year, both the Vietnamese and Cambodian sides have agreed that Laos should comply with the 1995 MRC Mekong Agreement,” Quang said.
According to the agreement, all MRC member countries should consult with the remaining MRC members when they want to build a new hydropower project on the mainstream of the Mekong River, and in this case it is the Don Sahong project, Quang added.
“In addition, we [Vietnamese and Cambodian governments] also recommended Laos only to begin work on the project after new rules comes into effect. The new rules will be released as soon as the environmental assessments of hydropower plants on the mainstream of the river jointly conducted by the three countries for the period ending by 2015 complete,” he said.
“In the yesterday meeting between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his Cambodian and Laotian counterparts, Prime Minister Dung and Prime Minister Hun Sen also suggested Laos to reconsider the recommendation of Vietnam and Cambodia,” Quang said.
“We think that Laos have taken our recommendations very seriously,” Ha Kim Ngoc, Minister of Foreign Affairs, said at the conference.
“Laos officials have told us that as they carried out the hydropower plants on the mainstream of the Mekong River, they weigh both the benefits those project may bring to Lao people and the side effects on Cambodian and Vietnamese people very carefully.”
“Once they find that the side effects are greater than expectation, they will surely adjust the projects [to fit with the new circumstance],” he added.
|“The Lao Government has notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its decision to proceed with the development oftheDonSahong Hydropower ProjectintheSiphandone area of Southern Laos.The run-of-the-river dam will operate continuously year-round and produce 260 megawatts of electricity. In its notification, submitted to the MRC Secretariat and dated 30 September 2013,LaoPDR also provided the complete technical feasibility study , including the project’s social and environmental impact assessments and fisheries study which will be shared with the other MRC Member Countries—Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.According to the Government of LaoPDR, the project’s construction is expected to start in November 2013 and finish by February 2018. The commercial operation is set to begin in May 2018. The energy generated by the project will be fully sold to the national power utility,Electricite du Laos (EDL), to supply the increased domestic power demand.”
(Press release dated 3rd Oct 2013 on the official MRC website)
Intensified and balanced interactions are key to achieve practical goals to tackle climate change woes amidst increased water, energy and food demands, concluded an International Conference
Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://tuoitrenews.vn/international/18842/mekong-leaders-adopt-ho-chi-minh-city-declaration
Updated : 04/05/2014 13:45 GMT + 7
Accelerating basin-wide studies to reduce negative impacts and battling natural disaster woes are among key priorities for Mekong nations as the second Mekong River Commission summit concluded in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday.
Heads of government of Cambodia, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam Saturday reaffirmed their commitment to the Mekong cooperation, to follow up the implementation of the Hua Hin Declaration of 2010, and set priorities for the Mekong River Commission, including the need to expedite studies and research for sound advice and recommendations on development that will increasingly place burdens on Mekong resources.
The Ho Chi Minh City Declaration was adopted by the premiers of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and the Special Envoy of Thailand.
Among its conclusions, the leaders stated that The MRC Council Study and the Mekong Delta Study will provide a basis for better understanding about potential risks and benefits of development initiatives.
At the end of the 2nd MRC Summit, the national leaders also set other priorities for the Mekong River Commission to take action to address regional opportunities and challenges over the next decade including population growth, increasing demand for water, food and energy and climate change.
The Council Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River, including the impacts of mainstream hydropower projects has been initiated by the MRC Council which comprises water and environment ministers at their annual Meeting in December 2011.
The Council Study aims to provide a better picture on potential transboundary impacts due to mainstream developments.
“To address such challenges, national efforts are not enough.
“We need to strengthen regional cooperation, particularly among the riparian countries, both upper and lower, through multilateral and sub-regional mechanisms such as the MRC,” said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, whose country hosted the 2nd MRC Summit.
“We note that the development of water resources of the Mekong River Basin has contributed largely to the socio-economic development of the region, such as for navigation, energy and food production, but also has negative environmental and social impacts in the Basin that need to be fully and effectively addressed,” the leaders said in the Ho Chi Minh City Declaration they adopted at the 2nd MRC Summit.
The MRC will focus on avoiding, reducing and mitigating risks to river ecology, food security, livelihoods and water quality posed by intensive agriculture, aquaculture and irrigation as well as hydropower, navigation and other development activities, the Declaration says.
The document acknowledges the progress made since the 1st Summit in Hua Hin in 2010 and reiterates the need for the Member Countries to work through the mechanisms of the MRC to manage the shared waters.
“The MRC should be measured in how it fosters international cooperation and in the end how the outcomes of the cooperation is producing improvements in society, the environment and economic development,” said Hans Guttman, Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat.
The leaders also prioritized further efforts to reduce the risks of floods and droughts and the effects of sea level rise in the Mekong Basin.
In battling the effects of natural disaster, leaders stressed that the Mekong Countries recognize that climate change will continue to alter the hydrological regime of the basin and consequently effect livelihoods and economies in the region.
The MRC will look ahead and set a clear direction, identifying new opportunities and addressing challenges to come up with the next strategic plan and to engage more meaningfully not only with development partners but also all other stakeholders, especially civil society.
The heads of government reaffirmed their political commitment to implement the 1995 Mekong Agreement and commit to enhance and strengthen the MRC’s relationships and cooperation with Dialogue Partners, China and Myanmar and Development Partners.
Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/389005/laos-holds-mekong-livelihoods-in-its-hands
The future of decision-making around the region’s most vital resource – the mighty Mekong River – is once again under the spotlight.
The Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) Joint Committee, comprised of representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, will hold a special meeting next week in Vientiane to discuss the controversial Don Sahong Dam, the second dam proposed on the lower Mekong mainstream. This is an important opportunity for Laos to heed calls from its neighbours in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, who have requested that the decision over whether or not to build the Don Sahong Dam is made regionally, rather than unilaterally. In September, Laos attempted to simply notify the MRC and member countries of its intention to build the Don Sahong Dam, eschewing regional discussion and sidestepping its responsibility to submit the project for “prior consultation”.
The consultation process allows the four Mekong countries to discuss and evaluate the impacts of the Don Sahong Dam, to seek agreement about the project’s future.
Since this announcement, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam have each sent official letters to the government of Laos requesting that the project undergo prior consultation.
International donors to the MRC, including Australia, the European Union, Japan and the US have also called on the government of Laos to submit the project for prior consultation.
Laos can no longer ignore the demands of its neighbours and sidestep its regional responsibility when it comes to the Don Sahong Dam.
Decisions over hydropower development on the Mekong cannot be made unilaterally, when the consequences of these decisions will be shared by the entire region. The demand for prior consultation made by Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam requires a response from Laos and action by the MRC if there is any hope for future co-operation.
This refrain may feel all too familiar, as the spectre of the Xayaburi Dam still hangs heavy around the neck of the MRC. The Xayaburi Dam was the first project to undergo the prior consultation process. As the first real test of regional cooperation on the Mekong River, the Xayaburi Dam revealed significant weaknesses in the MRC, as Laos moved forward with construction despite a lack of agreement from neighbouring countries.
The 1995 Mekong Agreement was established in recognition that regional participation and decision-making is imperative to successfully manage one of the region’s most critical shared lifelines. However, effective regional participation in decisions regarding dams on the Mekong mainstream has proved elusive and ineffective to date, leaving the fate of the Mekong in a precarious state.
Experts have warned that Don Sahong, located near the iconic Khone Falls area of southern Laos, poses a serious threat to local and regional fisheries; jeopardising the livelihoods and food security of millions.
The Don Sahong Dam would create a barrier across the Hou Sahong Channel, a critical pathway used year-round by fish migrating between Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The Khone Falls area is a series of complex channels that support more than 200 species of fish, including endemic and endangered species.
The Don Sahong Dam would likely have serious impacts on many of these species’ migration, feeding and breeding patterns. The project is also positioned 1km from a core habitat for the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, and less than 2km upstream from the Cambodian border. Despite warnings from experts, along with the MRC Secretariat, no transboundary impact assessment has been carried out.
The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers. The lower stretch of the river supports the lives and livelihoods of more than 60 million people; providing a source of food, income, health and cultural identity.
It is an essential resource within the region. However, conflict over the complex governance of the river along with the impacts posed by the mainstream dams threaten the future of livelihoods in the lower areas of the Mekong.
With all eyes trained on Vientiane next week, the stakes are high for the future of the river, as well as the future of the MRC. If the MRC cannot stand up to Laos, it will be failing its mandate as a regional governing body, and risks losing the little credibility it has left.
Laos, too, has the opportunity to show good faith towards its neighbours by submitting the Don Sahong Dam for regional consultation; allowing more time for studies on the project’s transboundary impacts, and ensuring that appropriate public consultation takes place.
About the author
- Writer: Kate Ross
Kate Ross is the Mekong Programme Associate at International Rivers, an international NGO that protects rivers and the rights of people who depend on them.