With its extraordinary diversity, the mighty Mekong has long enchanted explorers and travellers. Not only do its currents carry life-giving sediment and nutrients, its waters have provided a living for countless generations.
But for how much longer? How much time is left before the Mekong changes forever? A massive dam-building program is unfolding that will unleash a cascade of 11 dams that will forever lock the river into a series of silent and stagnant reservoirs behind hydraulic walls.
In a clash between a Lao government trying to sell electricity to its energy-hungry neighbors and earn hard currency, and the need to protect and preserve the river’s ecological riches and fisheries, conservation and food security is clearly losing. Construction on the Xayaburi Dam, the first on the Lower Mekong, got underway in 2012. Construction on a second dam, the Don Sahong, will start at the end of 2014. Work is moving forward faster than the completion of scientific studies needed to provide the evidence of “significant harm.”
This year is likely to be particularly critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s most important river, which originates from the Tibetan plateau and passes through six countries as it meanders its way to the delta in Vietnam.
The stakes are high. The endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin may be doomed if the dams go ahead according to the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The WWF is equally concerned about the threat to fisheries and the food security of more than 60 million people living in four Mekong countries.
Not surprisingly, then, activists were hopeful that the second Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit would put the issue of dam construction at the top of its agenda. “It is critical that the dangers of mainstream dam building take center stage,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers. With the summit wrapping up on the weekend, they have been left disappointed.
Certainly, the MRC summit offered a façade of celebratory unity, with three prime ministers of the four member states – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – in attendance. Behind this, though, lurked a distinct sense of MRC malaise, a lack of leadership and a papering over the deep divisions over dam-building.
MRC donor nations have expressed concern, calling for decisions on hydropower to be made based on “scientific knowledge regarding trans-boundary impacts on resources and ecosystems.”
Trandem argues that the unilateral decision of the Lao government to build the Xayaburi Dam without MRC approval and push ahead with the Don Sahong Dam are clear examples of disregarding science with a build first and study later mentality. The 1995 Mekong Treaty provides a legal basis for neighboring countries to demand that Laos halt construction if significant harm can be demonstrated.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are calling on the Lao and Thai governments to freeze the dam construction. Vietnam Rivers Network representative Lam Thi Thu Suu told The Diplomat that “although the Xayaburi dam is around 30 percent built, it does not mean we cannot stop it.”
In a move designed to remind Thailand that its investment could run up against serious opposition from Vietnam, and that it appears to run contrary to the spirit of the 1995 Mekong Treaty (Thailand being one of the four signatories), the Vietnam Rivers Network has dispatched a letter to Siam Commercial Bank asking it to cancel its investment in the Xayaburi project. The letter reads, in part, “the bank needs to reconsider their risk assessments, to give more importance to sustainable development, and to the government of Viet Nam, where your bank is currently trying to expand its business.” Similar letters have been sent to other Thai banks involved in Xayaburi
The MRC Role
The Xayaburi dam has become an important test case for the MRC‘s credibility in managing conflict over water resources, based on its special mandate to conduct a six-month regional consultation with all stakeholders under the hitherto unused procedure known as the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement.
MRC can only decide issues by consensus. The four member states were split down the middle with Cambodia and Vietnam strongly opposed to the Xayaburi Dam. With no consensus, but with backing from Thailand, Laos terminated the consultation and went ahead with construction of the dam, without waiting for the additional impact studies everybody agreed were necessary.
Cambodia’s National Mekong chairman Te Navuth commented “It has been very difficult talking with the Lao delegation. They don’t listen to our concerns.”
The MRC secretariat and CEO Hans Guttman have been criticized for their weakness in implementing the consultation process, and for allowing the Lao government to launch the dam with a host of unresolved issues on trans-boundary impacts.
Gutmann conceded in a speech to the pre-summit conference that the MRC is primarily a talking shop. “We have meetings, meetings, meetings and more meetings. We meet too often and too much, but there is no alternative.” Moreover, the 1995 Treaty lacks sanctions to deal with violations of the Mekong agreement, nor do other member states have any power of veto.
Several donor countries, development partners and NGOs are lobbying for changes in the 1995 Mekong Agreement and for reform of the MRC.
A Dire Threat To Vietnam
“If all the Mekong dams go ahead, the impact will be fully felt in about 15-20 years,” predicts wetlands specialist Nguyen Thien.
The delta accounts for roughly 50 percent of Vietnam’s total food production. Nguyen paints a grim scenario of the future, with the ecosystem devastated by dams and exacerbated by climate change. “The delta will lose its capacity to produce rice for export. Vietnam will probably still be able to feed its own people but will probably not able to export rice to feed anybody else. This will have implications for food buying countries and the price of food will be more expensive for all.”
In Cambodia, the director of fisheries has also sounded the alarm. Nao Thuok considered the threat posed by the dams to Cambodian fisheries, which provides 80 percent of the country’s protein, would be so bad that “For Cambodia this is a national security issue to protect our food security.”
Vietnamese Prime Minster Nguyen Tang Dung told the summit, ”Never has the Mekong River Basin faced so many challenges.” In 2013, a very worried Vietnamese government took the initiative to launch a major scientific study of the hydropower impact on the Mekong, and in particular the delta. The study was supported by both U.S. and Danish research groups.
In a press conference after the summit, Vietnamese Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Minh Quang urged Laos to stop the dam projects until “the environmental assessments of hydropower plants on the mainstream of the river jointly conducted by the three countries are completed in December 2015.”
However the Lao government insists it will continue with construction of the dams, and will not wait for the outcome of the Vietnam-based research expected in December 2015. It appears unlikely the Lao government, the poorest member of the MRC, will listen to the downstream countries without some kind of financial deal to compensate for the loss of revenue from the dams.
At the summit, Vietnam hinted that a financial deal was being considered, with a senior foreign ministry official telling The Diplomat, “We have discussed with Japan and with the U.S. compensation for Lao for not building dams.”
Unless an alternative deal is hatched before the end of the year, 2014 will surely be remembered as a tragic turning point for Southeast Asia’s most important river, and for the slow death of regional fisheries and agriculture.