The turbulent waters of the Mekong River have been witness to much strife. From the Vietnam War to the conflict in Cambodia in the 1980s, the citizens of the Mekong have been divided by war, ideology and Cold War diplomacy. And now, an energy-hungry region that has witnessed a boom in hydropower projects has spawned a new conflict – one that could again divide the Mekong sub-region.
It isn’t meant to be like this. After all, the Mekong River Commission (the MRC), which was established in 1995, was meant to unite the four member states in cooperative management of the river through dialogue and negotiation. The MRC was itself the successor to the Mekong Committee and the Interim Mekong Committee.
The river has long formed an integral part of the societies and economies of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and offers the region a rich ecosystem that includes more than 800 species of fish, as well as food security for an estimated 65 million people. It’s not surprising, then, that controversy has surrounded the plans for the Xayaburi dam.
This dam is the first of a cascade of 11 dams to be built on the Lower Mekong. The Lao government insists that building the dams, and in doing so becoming the ‘battery of Asia,’ is the country’s only hope to secure the resources it needs to support its development programs.
“The dam construction would pose no serious risks,” Viraphonh Viravong, deputy minister of the Laotian Ministry of Energy and Mines, has argued.
Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee has led efforts to block the dam with support from Cambodia, and has consistently argued that no more dams should be built on the Mekong for a decade. This view echoes the recommendation of the Strategic Environmental Assessment, a consultant report on the potential impact of the dam commissioned by the MRC and released in 2010.
This month, at a ministerial session in Siem Reap in Cambodia, the four nations issued a joint statement delaying a decision on the dam and calling for further scientific study on the likely impact of the proposed Mekong mainstream projects. Japan and other international donors will be asked to assist in conducting the studies.
The move was applauded by hundreds of NGOs and environmental groups working under the “Save the Mekong” campaign umbrella. But elation over the possibility that work on the dam had been indefinitely suspended has been dampened by a dissenting Lao government statement delivered in closed session at the end of the MRC session.
The Lao statement, which was never made public, reportedly states: “The Lao PDR will continue to work with reputable international experts to review and improve the final design of the Xayaburi HPP (the Hydropower Plant).”
A former official in the Lao hydropower sector, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the decision by the Lao government to build the Xayaburi dam had already been taken. “Whatever the other Mekong countries say, they are determined to go ahead in 2012,” he added.
The reality is that behind the vaguely worded MRC “consensus,” which reflects the weak regulatory framework of the commission, lays significant conflict between Laos, backed by Thailand on one side, and Vietnam and Cambodia on the other.