Tensions over the project are partly the result of competing development objectives among Mekong countries for shared natural resources in the Mekong Basin. But they also reflect the weakness of regional governance forums like the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The widespread public censure that Laos’s dam-building ambitions have attracted signals a distinct shift in regional politics that is only likely to intensify in coming years.
Perhaps the only undisputed issue in current debates is the tremendous socio-economic and environmental value of the Mekong River. This river system sustains the world’s largest inland fishery, providing crucial support for the livelihoods and food security of an estimated 60 million people, many of whom are the region’s poorest.
The Mekong River also boasts remarkable biodiversity, with almost 1000 fish species — second in diversity worldwide only to the Amazon River — as well as harbouring endangered species like the Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin and Giant Catfish. About 70 per cent of the Mekong River’s fish species are migratory — an unusual characteristic that is due to the river’s massive seasonal variation water volumes. So despite the appeal of Mekong River dams for developing countries like Laos, they have raised significant concerns because of their huge social and environmental impacts, and their challenges to regional cooperation.
The MRC has long promoted the goals of sustainable development, poverty alleviation and cooperative management of the Mekong River. The commission is a consultative intergovernmental body that works with the countries of the lower Mekong — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — though it is funded by a number of international donors. Yet recent events in Laos and elsewhere suggest that none of its admirable goals are being advanced.
By virtue of geography, Laos has abundant hydropower potential. The 1880-kilometre stretch of the Mekong River within Laos represents over a third of water flow in the Mekong Basin. Laos currently has the most planned dams along the lower Mekong (12 in total), and the Lao government regularly promotes its vision of becoming the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’. Hydropower is touted as a way of earning foreign revenue, funding poverty alleviation programs and enabling Laos to exit least-developed country status — goals which are seeing recent progress.
However, since the 1980s there has been increasing international recognition of the negative impacts of dams. Trans-boundary impacts, which can result in a highly uneven distribution of costs and benefits between neighbouring countries, are especially contentious.
In the case of the Mekong River, Laos’ enthusiasm for hydropower has prompted other countries of the lower Mekong Basin, who usually favour quiet diplomacy, to express unusually forthright public criticism.
Two dams are especially controversial because they are the first on the Mekong main stream that trigger requirements for ‘prior consultation’ with other MRC member countries under the 1995 Mekong Treaty. First, in late 2012, the Lao government approved Xayaburi — a huge US$3.5 billion, 1260-megawatt project in northern Laos being built by Thailand’s Ch. Karnchang PCL. This approval reversed previous suspensions of the project, but it failed to address concerns raised by other MRC member countries over flaws in the consultation and impact-assessment processes.
More recently, the Lao government’s approval of the Don Sahong hydropower project is also facing mounting objections. Though much smaller in size to Xayaburi, critics have highlighted that Don Sahong will block a channel that is crucial for dry-season fish migration on the Mekong River, and that mitigation measures proposed by the developer (Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Bhd) are untested and likely to fail. The developer’s environmental impact assessment also failed to consider the impact on regional fisheries, despite Don Sahong’s two-kilometre proximity to the Cambodian border.
In late 2013, the Lao government also unilaterally re-classified Don Sahong as no longer a mainstream dam, so that less-stringent conditions for ‘notification’ of other lower Mekong countries would apply instead of ‘prior consultation’. This decision has attracted widespread censure. A special meeting of the MRC Joint Committee held in Vientiane in January 2014 failed to resolve the issue, with member countries only agreeing to refer it to a later meeting of the MRC Council.
Most observers doubt that a MRC-led resolution will result in a meaningful reconsideration of Don Sahong. The MRC has so far not censured the Lao government for its violations of the MRC Treaty over both Xayaburi and Don Sahong. Such persistent inaction supports the increasingly common view of the MRC as unassertive and ineffective. The MRC’s diplomatic reticence stands in stark contrast to the increasing assertiveness of countries with untapped hydropower potential — including, increasingly, China.
While the MRC is not a regulatory body, its emphasis on diplomacy above all other measures calls into question its reason for existence. Sustainable development and regional cooperation of the Mekong River are admittedly challenging goals, but without a strong champion of good governance, critics are right to be alarmed over a future where sustainable hydropower in the Mekong appears to be a vanishing possibility.
Dr Sarinda Singh is a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at The University of Queensland.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the Edge in Asia’.