HANOI, July 31, 2009 (AFP) - A watchdog has kicked off a study to look at proposed hydropower developments on the Mekong River and their impact on the tens of millions of people living along it, officials said Friday.
The probe has been launched to help countries affected by the projects decide whether they want to go ahead with them.
The results are expected by July or August next year, Damian Kean, spokesman for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) secretariat in Laos, told AFP.
While hydropower is already used to generate electricity on the river's tributaries, the private sector has not in the past seriously considered using the mainstream, the MRC said in a press release.
Eleven schemes are being studied by Cambodia, Laos and Thailand but in China, where the Mekong is known as the Lancang River, there are already eight existing or planned mainstream dams, the MRC said.
The Commission is an intergovernmental body that deals with all river-related activities including fisheries, agriculture and flood management.
Increased interest in building hydropower dams in the mainstream lower Mekong River basin means the MRC is now "faced with perhaps its most important strategic challenge" since its founding in 1995, Jeremy Bird, chief executive officer of the MRC secretariat, said in the statement.
China is not a member of the MRC but attended annual meetings with its four MRC neighbours this week in Laos and the Commission said it had expressed a willingness to provide experts for the study.
"I think it's very significant," Kean said. "They're a dialogue partner and I think that signifies that they're taking the concerns of the downstream countries reasonably seriously."
More than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin depend on the river system for food, transport and economic activity, the MRC said, adding that it is home to the world's most valuable inland fishery.