Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:10): On 7 November, Laos and Thailand began construction of the Xayaburi dam across the Mekong River. If this dam is built, there will be tragic consequences for the Mekong River and its people. The Xayaburi dam would drive the construction of another 10 dams proposed for the mainstream of the Lower Mekong. These developments are very relevant to Australia. We are a major funder of the Mekong River Commission, MRC. Between 2008 and 2012, Australia funded the MRC to the tune of $17.3 million, and the Australian government took the lead in formulating a joint Mekong River Commission development partner statement in 2011. In response to my question on the concerns expressed by Cambodia and Vietnam about the Xayaburi dam, the minister stated:
The Australian Government will continue to engage with all MRC Member States in support of dam deliberation processes that are well-informed, transparent and allow for contestability. The Australian Government's aim is to support, and advocate for, robust deliberative processes in the countries and communities most affected. The Australian Government wants to ensure the benefits and costs are fully considered, and that as a result, informed decisions are taken by the governments of the Mekong Basin countries.
I hope that position still stands as Cambodia and Vietnam, despite claims by Laos that their concerns have been addressed, continue to insist that further studies are carried out on the project's transboundary impacts. Clearly, Australia should be working closely with Vietnam and Cambodia to ensure these studies are undertaken. This work is urgently needed.
If the Xayaburi dam is built, it will irreversibly alter the Mekong River's complex ecosystems, impacting on the food security of millions who live in the Mekong Basin. The project will directly affect the livelihood of 202,000 people living near the dam and 2,100 will have to be resettled. A review of the project's original environmental impact assessment revealed critical flaws in the understanding of the impacts of the project on the river's ecosystem and people. This EIA only examined impacts 10 kilometres downstream from the dam site, whereas scientists believe the impacts will extend hundreds of kilometres into neighbouring countries.
The Xayaburi dam, if built, will block fish migration routes for between 23 and 100 fish species to the Mekong's upper stretches, as far upstream as Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, an important spawning ground for the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish. The dam will destroy the river's complex ecosystems that serve as important fish habitats for local and migratory species. The dam will also block sediment flows in the Mekong River, affecting agriculture as far downstream as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Despite the enormity of the proposed dam's impacts, Laos has still not met Cambodia and Vietnam's requests to study the dam's transboundary impacts. On 22 October, Vietnam's Minister of Natural Resources and Environment met the Laos Prime Minister and requested that all construction on the Xayaburi dam be stopped until necessary studies to assess the impacts of Mekong mainstream dams were first carried out.
Australia has a key role to play at this critical stage in the future of the Mekong. The Australian Greens urge the Australian government to remind the Laos government of its obligations under the 1995 Mekong agreement and of the need to gain agreement from neighbouring countries before moving to full construction of the Xayaburi dam. I urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, to acquaint himself with the letter sent today by the Save the Mekong Coalition to Mr Hans Guttman, the MRC CEO, and to MRC development partners.
This letter is signed by non-government organisations, local people, academics, journalists, artists and ordinary people from within the Mekong countries and internationally. Save the Mekong calls for the Xayaburi Dam's construction and power purchase agreement to be immediately suspended, as the dam does not fully comply with the 1995 Mekong agreement.
The coalition also calls on Laos and Thailand to publicly release the final design of the dam and have it undergo an independent technical expert review commissioned by the MRC, and for the MRC to immediately hold its first true regional public consultation in order to allow the public an opportunity to discuss the Xayaburi Dam and its impacts, whether the electricity from the dam is needed and if there are alternative energy technologies available. Through its role on the MRC and directly with the Mekong countries Australia has a critical role to play. In the context of the Asian century white paper this issue, of Australia playing a constructive role for the people and the environment of the Mekong, takes on even greater importance.