Features | Environment | Southeast Asia

Mekong Battle Delayed

The announcement that a decision over whether to proceed with the controversial Xayaburi dam has been delayed has been welcomed by NGOs. But will Laos push ahead anyway?

By Tom Fawthrop for

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.

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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.

Thailand is heavily involved with the project, with Thai corporation Ch. Karnchang to build the dam with financing from four Thai banks. An estimated 95 percent of the electricity is expected to be sold to Thailand. Meanwhile, Ch. Karnchang has already built a new road to the dam site, a development on which the Laos government has failed to answer questions posed by the MRC.

Piaporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for NGO International Rivers, says the Thai government has been complicit with the Lao government in trying to push ahead with the dam. “By moving under the radar of the Mekong River Commission, Thailand and Laos have threatened the spirit of regional cooperation and the integrity of the 1995 Mekong Agreement,” she says. “While it’s no surprise that the dam builder Ch. Karnchang has lobbied extensively for the dam to proceed, it’s completely unacceptable that the Thai government would bow down to the project developer over the interests of its own people.”

Under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, after the consultation process is finished, there is nothing to stop the Lao government exercising its right to proceed with the dam anyway, in spite of vehement objections from Cambodia and Vietnam – and a substantial body of science warning of an ecological disaster.

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“Dams have a hugely negative impact even in economic, terms. It’s not just environmental losses,” says Philip Hirsch, director head of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney. “According to a recent study, the economic cost to replace these ecosystem services has been estimated at around $274 billion.”

Donor nations to the MRC, including the United States, have also indicated concern that no dam should proceed before a credible environmental impact assessment is undertaken, as well as assessments of other risks involved. One issue that has been raised, for example, is whether the designers have taken sufficient account of the fact that the Xayaburi dam is located on a fault-line.

Some observers hoped that the traditional historical bonds between Laos and Vietnam, dating back to the common struggle against French colonialism, might have been enough to deter Laos striking out on its own. But the influence Hanoi still has looks like it may be outweighed by the Thai investment in the $3.8 billion project.

An amicable resolution to the issue is therefore likely going to require a face-saving solution that comes with some significant financial incentives for Laos to back away from the plan. The question is whether the will exists among international donors to back up such a solution.

Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.