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Effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessments in the Mekong River Region;
By Faygle Train


When developers design new infrastructure, their plans should include possible impacts of their project. After all, it would be a waste of time, resources, and expenses to construct a road only to have it flooded out by monsoons or blocking animal migration. One tool used to help planners decide whether to proceed with their project is called an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). While it generally provides valuable services, in cases such as Southeast Asia’s Mekong River hydropower dams, the EIA is also prone to critical flaws that hinder it from being an effective and sustainable framework for planners and activists alike.
An EIA is a tool for “evaluating the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project or development, taking into account inter-related socio-economic, cultural and human-health impacts, both beneficial and adverse” (Convention on Biological Diversity). The EIA is used to identify consequences of a project at an early stage in its planning and design, through which stakeholders can find ways to negate negative impacts, better interact with the environment, and conform to laws. This results in reduced project cost, time, and clean-up. While EIA rules differ according to each nation’s laws, the framework generally involves: Identification of impacts based on legislation, conventions, and expert and public knowledge; Technical assessment of impacts and alternative plan development; Reporting; Deciding to approve the project and under what conditions; and Monitoring to ensure that unpredicted or failed measures are addressed (Convention on Biological Diversity). Via research and discourse, an EIA “can produce more environmentally sustainable assessment decisions. Thus, the legitimacy of EIA should not only be judged based on its assessment qualities, but rather on its potential to achieve the goals of sustainable development” (Wilkins).
EIAs enforce one nation’s legislation, but there is also a Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TEIA): after all, nature acts as a borderless, flexible force. The United Nation’s Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context has protocols like the obligation to consult other member countries on projects that are likely to have impacts across borders. While 45 nations and the European Union have voluntarily adopted this convention, many have not – including none of the six Mekong River countries (UN Treaty Collection). Thus no Mekong River country has a formal responsibility to discuss their development intentions with their neighbours, and countries cannot claim another has failed to notify them of projects. The TEIA’s voluntary status thus puts the river’s environment and populations at risk.
Major development projects require various stakeholders. The main economic stakeholders are the proponents who design and/or finance the project, like a government or a private sector industry. They must be transparent about their intentions and plans. After all, the EIA and TEIA process should be a forum for discourse that includes experts who comprehend probable impacts, legislators who draft and monitor the laws, and the local public who is most affected by changes to their environment. Diversified participation is important for EIAs because it “addresses the needs of good governance, has an internalization function of bringing public [values] into the process (resulting in better decisions and political legitimacy), assists to educate stakeholders and the public, reduces or avoids conflict, and helps the public in becoming more responsive and democratic citizens” (Wilkins). This process truly allows people to learn and communicate about their communities.
Since development affects those who depend on equality and resilience of local resources, civil society is another extremely important stakeholder. The Mekong River sustains millions of people; it is crucial that their needs be heard. For Bangladeshi Water Activist S.M. Mizanur Rahman, “the growth of our civilisation, our culture, architecture, commerce and trade are all river-centric” (CNA Insider). Communities in Cambodia and Vietnam are being affected by changes occurring in China and Laos – changes which EIAs or TEIAs did not adequately predict or address. For Pianporn Deetes, Regional Campaigns Director of International Rivers, and “a daughter of the Mekong … it’s not just H20, it’s flowing culture. Flowing living importance for our livelihoods … How can we have rural communities to have equal participation in decision-making over the Mekong River resources planning” (CNA Insider)? Unfortunately, a lack of authentic public consideration is just one reason why EIA or TEIA tools are sometimes ineffective.
EIA and TEIA processes also suffer from various technical limitations. For example, data assessors often make flawed predictions due to “poor selection of available resources, inability to secure data, strict timelines, or budgetary pressures” (Wilkins). Another issue is the process itself being based on predictions. Data is simplified in order to make more accurate, if less precise, predictions that may lead to decreased credibility and confidence. Crucially, “the influence of personal value systems and beliefs is unavoidable when creating an expert evaluation and interpretation. Expert belief is present in opinion and judgments, in particular when there is not enough evidence for a certain phenomenon” (Wilkins). Therefore, a company may employ an expert whose values are publicly in line with their own beliefs and goals. A final limitation for EIAs and TEIAs is their perception by stakeholders: “Environmentalists distrust EIAs because the proponent carries out the work, while proponents themselves dislike the process because it constitutes a bureaucratic hurdle, costs money and delays projects” (Wilkins). Such bias may affect the qualitative methods used in EIA reporting.
In the specific case of the Mekong River, there is one exceptionally large limitation: as aforementioned, none of the six Mekong countries have any formal law requiring TEIAs. Although they have local EIA laws for projects with “potentially significant impacts … many EIAs in the lower Mekong countries are of poor quality and their governments have very limited technical capacity to review them” (King). Another limitation of Mekong EIAs is their enforcement. For example, the fine in Vietnam for failing to produce an EIA may cost a planner only 10,000 USD (D’Andrea & Partners). This is a small fee for a private company investing millions in an entire project, and as such, they may simply ignore the requirement to prepare an EIA.
To further explore EIA and TEIA effectiveness, let us dive deeper (figuratively!) into the Mekong River, the longest river in Southeast Asia. Beginning on the Tibetan Plateau, it flows nearly 5,000 km to the Mekong Delta through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong River Basin includes seven regions with diverse topography, divided into the Upper Mekong River Basin (China and Myanmar) and Lower Mekong River Basin (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) (Mekong River Commission). The river’s terrestrial habitats include deciduous, evergreen, and karst limestone forests, grasslands, plateaus, wetlands, and river banks (WWF). This makes it one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, with more than 1,300 fish species, 200 bird species, 800 reptile and amphibian species, 430 mammal species, and 20,000 plant species. Some of the world’s largest scale animals live here, like the giant freshwater stingray and the Mekong giant catfish, along with elephants and tigers. The basin also supports critically endangered species like the Giant Ibis, and the Siamese crocodile (WWF).
Due to this biodiversity, the river is also one of the world’s most productive inland fishery systems, providing 2.5 million tonnes of protein-rich food annually for over 60 million people. Economically, it accounts for 25% of global inland catch and is worth 2.5 billion USD per year. Yet this economic growth, urbanization, and industrialisation due to unregulated hydropower production, agriculture, fisheries, and trade is not felt by low-income communities – those without clean drinking water and electricity – who struggle for basic livelihood amid affected water and lost land. Approximately 80% of these at-risk people depend on the river for their livelihoods, making sustainable development via effective TEIA or other legislation crucial (Mekong River Commission).
The Mekong River is a significant economic and social asset, but lack of transboundary policy and user responsibility is adversely affecting its health. One of its biggest challenges is China’s control over the Upper Mekong River Basin, the beginning of the river’s flow. This is due to the eleven hydropower dams China has built, which manipulate the water’s flow and quantity, leading to habitat fragmentation, and impacting people, flora, fauna, and soil in the Lower Basin. More troubling is China’s plan to widen the river and build more dams as part of their Belt Road Initiative (Ani News) along with Laos’ intentions to build more dams. How have China and Laos’ dams been built if they cause such damage to multiple aspects of earth’s planetary boundaries?
Hydropower dams are a popular Mekong infrastructure because they produce energy for income, investment, and human needs. As the region develops, “energy demand is expected to increase by 6-7% each year [through] to 2025, and hydropower has proved an important alternative to fossil fuels… As Southeast Asia adapts to climate change, reservoirs for hydropower and flood-control dams can be useful in irrigation projects, and have the potential to assist with water supply” (Roney). But due to a lack of regional enforcement, China has built dams that effectively control the entire river. When they face drought, their five downstream neighbours feel it, and when there is overabundant water, they release floods. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has argued that China also suffers from droughts. Yet climatologists prove that China is not only not experiencing water shortages, but in fact, is to blame for directly limiting flow for Lower Mekong countries. According to expert Alan Basist, “satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress. There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China” (Beech) even though the river is a shared commodity.
Dams have a dramatic impact, “resulting in unseasonable flooding and droughts, low water levels in the dry season, and drops in the amounts of sediment carried by the river, with drastic consequences for biodiversity and fisheries” (Roney). Without TEIA obligations, these dams will continue to cause severe environmental, economic, and social challenges. They block fish migration, kill fish larvae, and flood bird nests. There are now 68 threatened Lower Mekong fish species, while Mekong giant catfish have decreased by 90%. From an economic perspective, dams prevent sediment from flowing downstream, which harms soil fertility, which harms fishing and aquaculture industries – just losing fisheries will cost 23 billion USD by 2040. China’s water releases also destroy agricultural crops (Beech). Industry-sponsored sand dredging harms “more than 1,000 families [who] have their livelihoods completely dependent on farming and fishing on the Tompoun Lake and Choeung Ek wetland” (CNA Insider) in Cambodia. Finally, sand dredging and the lack of sediment on Lower Mekong banks has led to flooded property and roads (Roney). Not implementing an enforceable policy has led to the degradation of a valuable environment, when solutions could be found in improved water management policies, data sharing, and early warning systems (United Nations Treaty Collection).
Due to the lack of TEIA policies, China is not the only Mekong power: Laos, with nearly 80 dams, is planning more, even though COVID-19 economic problems lessened neighbouring Thailand’s electricity demand. Critics like International Rivers’ Deetes say new dams are driven by profit-seeking stakeholders: “There is an oversupply, so why do they still want to build dams? Nobody knows because there is no oversight. [This would not be an issue] in a country with a clear checking mechanism, environmental or public property laws” (Sasipornkarn). This system underplays the environmental and social costs of development in lieu of money. After all, Laos’ Xayaburi dam, financed by Thai companies, “expects to reap an estimated $466 million in annual revenue for the Xayaburi Power Company Limited … under a purchasing agreement with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand” (Sasipornkarn). How can legislators and activists who care for nature and social interests ever hope to compete with these larger stakeholders?
While organizations such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) are trying to find solutions, there remains the same limitation as with the UN’s TEIA: MRC is an advisory body between Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, but China and Myanmar are not full members. This is an issue because the MRC serves to provide research and coordination of water-based development in the Mekong Basin (Roney), thus China is not fully engaged in transboundary sustainable development conversations even though they are a significant part of the problem; after all, MRC’s Basin Development Plan 2021-2030 lists China’s Upper Mekong dams as their first priority for review and management (Mekong River Commission). While funded by governments, the MRC has no authority to stop industry. MRC can advise, but no country is legally bound by its decisions. This has consequences: “Laos has been accused [of] proceeding with preliminary construction despite lacking [approval]. The Sanakham dam project, only two kilometres from the Thai border, had its [approval] process blocked when it was found to have plagiarised [from] a previous dam project” (Roney).
There is also the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a Chinese river development framework. However, the LMC does not see hydropower as a focal point of its mission. Even more damning, it financed a lavish building in Cambodia for the LMC’s use, but after worsening droughts, Cambodia’s Energy Minister suspended plans for China- sponsored dams (Beech). Yet these organizations may solve the issue of lack of data that TEIAs struggle with: “LMC and MRC meetings enabled the creation of the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform in 2020, which provides regular updates of hydrological data from China, thus ensuring more transparency regarding China’s section of the river” (Roney). This is vital as satellites prove China does not always share water restriction or release data. In addition to data sharing, effective policies require understanding of the interconnections between water governance, environment, and society. While scientists and engineers have designed mathematical models to study development impacts, “integration with social sciences is only dawning … The real change may come through establishment of teams for integrated assessment and modelling with balanced and equal participation by modellers, social scientists, policy experts and other non-modellers [to guide] development and impact assessments, and to end up with relevant answers and solutions from society’s point of view” (Sarkkula et al).
A framework more enforceable and effective than a TEIA would help other rivers in the region which face similar challenges. China “announced it would seek to exploit the hydropower potential of the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo — a transboundary river that flows from Tibet into India … and then into Bangladesh” (Doman et al). Concerned experts describe this dam as the riskiest mega structure ever planned: the location is prone to landslides and earthquakes, and is also close to territorial disputes on the border between India and China. Experts fear that China is weaponizing water by controlling it, similar to their activities in the Mekong River. This is why Bangladeshi Activist Rahman argues that “if we can’t stop China from building the dam, then the very existence of our country will be in danger” (CNA Insider).
The Mekong River is a complex environmental and political challenge, so its lack of transboundary management must be solved with something more effective than a voluntary, single- nation-dependent EIA. I must again reference Deetes of International Rivers, who argues that Lower Mekong people “are not asking for cash compensation or anything like that. We [would] just like to see the mighty Mekong once again free flowing in a healthy manner, and that she can feed our livelihoods, she can feed migratory fish and she can feed our agricultural land” (CNA Insider). China and Laos’ control over Mekong water quality and quantity has immense adverse impacts on the Lower Mekong’s environment, economic, and social health. Without a more enforceable TEIA – one with true legal and financial implications – this situation is unlikely to improve.


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