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Monday, 19 November 2012
Page: 9089


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.

On another issue, today is World Toilet Day, a day set aside to recognise the importance of the humble toilet. This is something most of us take for granted here in Australia, but in many parts of the world a basic toilet facility is a luxury. World Toilet Day gives us an opportunity to remember that there is a global sanitation crisis affecting more than 2.5 billion people around the world.

Back in March I acknowledged World Water Day in this Senate, celebrating the fact that the UN Millennium Development Goal target for drinking water had been met. Two billion people have gained access to clean drinking water since 1990, and that has done a lot of good in low-income countries. But things are not so good when we look at sanitation. Progress in this area has stalled. In my speech in March I noted that the Millennium Development Goal target for sanitation would not be met. The goal aimed to halve the proportion of people without access to adequate sanitation by 2015. According to the World Health Organisation's and UNICEF's Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, the millennium development target will not be met until 2049, based on current rates of progress.

This will bring dire consequences for those who do not have access to toilet facilities. One of the most obvious problems is disease. Around 3,000 children die every day from water, sanitation and hygiene related causes, with diseases like diarrhoea, pneumonia, worms and trachoma rife in many low-income regions. These are diseases that are easily avoidable when basic sanitation standards are met. This year the international aid organisation WaterAid has drawn attention to specific dangers faced by women who do not have access to safe sanitation. I thank them for the good work they do in spotlighting issues like these. Right now, more than one in three women in the world lack access to safe sanitation—that is 1.25 billion women. Over half a billion of these women have no choice but to go to the toilet out in the open. This is obviously something that brings significant shame and embarrassment which is, in itself, a serious problem that has a significant impact on their happiness and human dignity. It also puts them at risk of disease, harassment and even attack.

Many women have shared their personal stories of long, dangerous journeys to find a suitable outdoor space to use as a toilet, searching for a place that is private but also safe. Eighteen-year-old Sandimhia Renato from Mozambique walks 15 minutes each day to find privacy in the bush outside her town. The trip takes her across a bridge—a precarious structure from which a number of people in her community have fallen to their death. She says:

I come here once a day, between 4 pm and 5 pm. At night it is very dangerous. People get killed. A woman and a boy were killed with knives. One woman I know of has been raped.

While whole communities are affected by a lack of toilets and amenities, women are most affected because of these external dangers and because of the specific sanitation needs that women have.

Representatives of Micah came to Canberra last year to talk about their water, sanitation and hygiene program, referred to as the WASH program. They brought with them a very large toilet—one of the most spectacular props parliament has ever seen. Micah are continuing their work with the Give Poverty the Flush campaign. The Greens support Micah's call for the Australian government to urgently increase its investment in water, sanitation and hygiene to $500 million annually by 2015. This is Australia's fair share of the cost of meeting the sanitation and water MDG target. Further, the Australian government should ensure at least half of this $500 million is directed to sanitation, because more people live without decent sanitation than without safe water. The key to achieving these objectives is a timetable commitment to increase the foreign aid budget to 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2020. I congratulate Micah for all their work in this area.