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New Mekong guidelines lacking, government official says

Boats dock on the bank of the Mekong River in northern Laos early last year at the planned construction site for the Pak Beng dam. International Rivers
Boats dock on the bank of the Mekong River in northern Laos early last year at the planned construction site for the Pak Beng dam. International Rivers

New Mekong guidelines lacking, government official says

A Cambodian representative to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said yesterday that new guidelines for hydropower development agreed to late last month don’t fully address threats to the health of the imperiled waterway.

Chheang Hong, a representative of the Cambodian government to the MRC, said in an email that while the guidelines are a step towards cooperation between member states, the document “seems not to address food security, sedimentation and other significant concerns [such] as fishery production and catch . . . decrease as results of hydropower, sediment trapping and water diversion by upstream development”.

Hong also agreed with conservationists that efforts to mitigate the environmental impacts of hydropower dams would be ineffective and that fish migration across borders, among other environmental concerns, should be considered in future development plans, as should changes in hydrology, sediment and nutrient transport.

While “limited”, the new regulations do push for a better understanding of the impact of hydropower. They also recommend impact assessments be conducted earlier in the approval process for a project, Conservation International’s Dr Vittoria Elliott said by email.

She noted that the Cambodian government’s attitude towards hydropower may be shifting after last year’s opening of the Lower Sesan II dam on the Sesan River, a major tributary to the Mekong in Stung Treng province. Some estimates have projected a nearly 10 percent reduction in the country’s fish production due to the dam.

“[It] is not clear whether [Lower Sesan II] will be profitable, particularly in the dry season, and already, we know it has cut off access to important fish habitats (and we will see an effect on fish production),” Elliot said, adding that mounting worries over the nation’s ability to feed itself are taking precedence.

As for “the food security for the nation, I would be surprised if the government would want to threaten it further at this critical time or at any point in the future”, she added.

The Mekong River, and the interconnected Tonle Sap Lake, whose highly productive floodplain is fed by the Mekong’s annual flood cycle, provides for more than three-quarters of Cambodians’ protein intake in the form of freshwater fish.

“Research has shown . . . that there really aren’t viable alternatives to fish and if you can’t feed the people and can’t nourish them – there is likely to be a national crisis,” Elliott said.

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