‘Turning Point’ for Mekong Dams

A new report urges more cooperation and consideration of the environmental impact along Southeast Asia’s main waterway.
2012-03-23
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Fishermen row their boats on the Mekong River near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, March 2, 2012.
AFP

The Mekong River could be on the brink of significant change as regional governments begin to take a new approach toward assessing dam proposals along the key Southeast Asian artery, a U.S. think tank said in a report Friday.

Decision-making about planned dams on the Mekong River, which runs through six countries, moved toward a more cooperative and sustainable approach in the past year, the Stimson Center report said.

“The political economy of the Mekong River Basin shifted in 2011 from policies that exploited this transboundary resource … to potentially more cooperative and sustainable approaches,” the report said.

The future of the river “could now be at a turning point toward a fuller and more careful consideration of the risks and uncertainties of mainstream dam construction within a regional framework,” it said.

The Mekong Riverwhich runs from the Tibetan plateau in China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnamhas 15 hydropower dams planned, with five already constructed on the Upper Mekong in China.

Critics of the hydropower projects say the dams threaten to destroy the ecology of the river, disrupt the livelihood of riparian communities, and jeopardize the food security throughout the region.

The report pointed to a potential watershed moment in decision-making on the dams in November last year, when Laos temporarily shelved plans to build the Xayaburi dam, the first of those planned on the lower part of the river.

“The critical requirement for the immediate future is to maintain the momentum gained in the past year and quickly respond to the window of opportunity created by the postponement of the Xayaburi project,” it said.

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Xayaburi

The Xayaburi dam in northern Laos is one of 12 dams planned on the Lower Mekong, most of them in Cambodia and Laos.

The report called the dam the “biggest test” of the Mekong River Commission, a regional body of countries that share the waterway, since its establishment in 1995.

Laos, which has planned 70 hydropower projects on its rivers and hopes to become “the battery of Asia,” temporarily halted plans to construct the Xayaburi dam after leaders of four countries agreed further study was needed on the sustainable management and development of the river.

The four Mekong River Commission member countries are Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Earlier in 2011, Laos had given the dam the go-ahead after the commission said it could not come to a consensus on how to proceed with the Xayaburi project.

Laos’s postponement of the Xayaburi project was the first time a Mekong country had made a decision about a mainstream dam based on the impact beyond its borders.

Before that, most dams in the region had been treated as “purely domestic projects,” the report said.

Factors

Civil society in Thailand and Vietnam played an important role in the postponement of the Xayaburi project.

In Thailand, civil society organizations made their concern about the dam a campaign issue in the national election, and environmental NGOs in Vietnam worked with government officials to make public opposition to the dam known.

The governments involved have shown more awareness of the impact of their decisions across their own borders, the report said.

It pointed to the Mekong River Commission’s commitment to specific protocol for assessing the costs and benefits of the dams as another important factor in the shifting decision-making climate surrounding the dams.

If these trends continue, the report said, the Mekong dams could “set a new standard for regional decision-making," the report predicted.

But the region still has much at stake as decisions on damming the river do not take into consideration the environmental impact on the region as a whole, the report said.

“The negative impacts on food security, livelihoods, water availability, and water quality have the potential to jeopardize the region’s hard-won peace and stability,” it said. 

But if handled properly, the competition for water resources could become, instead of a source of conflict, a “catalyst for regional cooperation,” it said.

Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.